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Cryptocurrency Was Their Way Out of South Korea’s Lowest Rungs. They’re Still Trying.

SEOUL, South Korea — Kim Ki-won is keeping a secret from his parents.

It isn’t just that he has bought and sold an immense number of digital coins. Mr. Kim, who is 27 and lives with his parents, once made so much money trading cryptocurrencies that he was spending $1,000 a month on whatever he wanted. He quit his job. He borrowed to buy more. He planned to buy a house.

Today he sits slumped over, at times hiding his eyes behind his hair. Which brings us back to Mr. Kim’s secret: He has lost a lot of money, perhaps tens of thousands of dollars.

“I don’t think it’s fair that people call it gambling,” he said of his cryptocurrency obsession. “But there are elements of truth here and there.”

A generation of young South Koreans like Mr. Kim, looking for a way out of their dead-end prospects, has helped turn the country into a capital of the wild world of cryptocurrencies. Now that the market has virtually collapsed, many people young and old are mired in debt and losses. Still, many young South Koreans continue to see digital money as a way break out.

She lives with her parents and works part time at Dunkin’ Donuts, studying English online at night.

At first, she made a lot of money investing in cryptocurrencies. She used a few thousand dollars she made to buy nice clothes for herself and her mother, and dreamed of starting a coffee shop with her loot. Then, she lost nearly all of it.

“I felt a sense of shame when I lost money on my Bitcoin investments, not once but twice because of my greed to make a fortune in one go,” she said. Even still, she added, she’ll stick to digital coins.

“There is nowhere else to go to recover my losses anyway,” she said.

Being young in South Korea can be defeating and stifling. To succeed is to get either a government position or a job at one of a small but powerful group of family-owned conglomerates that control most of the products Koreans use. This requires getting into one of a handful of exclusive universities, a feat that has become so difficult that many young people delay applying for several years.

Income inequality is among the worst in Asia. Youth unemployment is 10.5 percent and has hovered near that figure for the past five years even as overall unemployment is 3.4 percent.

Young Koreans are called the “sampo generation,” a portmanteau referring to the three things they have given up on: courtship, marriage and family.

Adding to their sense of disillusionment are a string of political scandals, including one that led to the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye, that exposed the deeply entrenched ties between South Korea’s powerful conglomerates and politicians.

When cryptocurrency came along, it set off discussions in chat rooms, weekly hangouts and even intellectual salons created just for digital coins: Could this new system uproot South Korea’s rigid social order?


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