Korean regulator found dead as government completes cryptocurrency u-turn

The man chiefly responsible for South Korea’s recent regulatory clampdown on cryptocurrencies has died suddenly at the age of 52, according to local reports.

News of Jung Ki-joon’s death emerged on the same day that the country’s financial regulator said it would “support” normal transactions of cryptocurrencies, apparently flipping earlier government positions.

Jung, head of the Economic Policy Coordination Office under the Office for Government Policy Coordination, is “presumed to have suffered a heart attack while sleeping” according to police cited by news agency Yonhap. The coroner is yet to issue an official cause of death and while some reports quote colleagues speculating about stress, others mention that Jung was apparently in good health.

The Wall Street Journal quoted a government spokesman saying: “He died from some unknown cause. He passed away while he was sleeping and his heart had already stopped beating when he was found dead.”

South Korea emerged as a hub for cryptocurrency trading over the past year, with exchanges reporting an 80-fold increase in activity in 2017 compared with 2016. Yonhap reported that business through some 30 exchanges operating in the country reached $648 million. The South Korean won (KRW) is behind only USD, JPY and EUR as preferred currency for cryptocurrency transactions, and bitcoin was reported to be trading at a higher price in Korea than elsewhere in the world.

The South Korean government responded to the apparent crypto frenzy in late December, stating that it would impose restriction “due to excessive volatility”.

Jung briefed reporters in mid January that a total shutdown on exchanges was “one of the measures suggested by the justice ministry to curb speculation” but that “a government-wide decision will be made after sufficient consultation and coordination of opinions.”

He added: “We will respond strongly to cryptocurrency speculation and illegal acts, but we will provide support to research and development relating to blockchain technology.”

South Korean uncertainty contributed to a steep slump in the bitcoin market through January. However, by late in the month the government appeared to be softening in its stance on cryptocurrency exchanges, when finance minister Kim Dong-yeon said: “There is no intention to ban or suppress cryptocurrency (market).”

The country was reportedly considering licensing exchanges instead, according to Business Korea. Reports today quoting Choe Heung-sik, governor of the Financial Supervisory Service, seemed to complete the u-turn.

Yonhap reported that “Choe recently held a meeting with representatives from cryptocurrency exchanges during which he said the government ‘will support [cryptocurrency trading] if normal transactions are made.’”

The report continued: “Choe said the government will ‘encourage’ banks to make transactions with cryptocurrency exchanges.”

The No Bull reponse: One can only hope the new Economic Policy Coordination Office head is a bigger fitness fan than his predecessor. While there has been substantial division on the subject of cryptocurrency regulation in South Korea, it appears that this u-turn may encounter fewer obstructions than seen over the past few months. This can only be a good sign for South Korean-conglomerate-backed cryptocurrency ICON. Hopefully this won’t have the no-doubt unwanted side effect of benefitting the North’s alleged cryptocurrency money laundering activities at the same time.