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Updated: 2018.4.13 22:17
 
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[ Issue 159 Page 1 ] Friday, January 12, 2018, 23:26:46 Juhoon Lee Assistant Editor juhoonlee@kaist.ac.kr

Money doesn’t appear out of thin air? That is so 2017. With the Big Bang of the cryptocurrency market, digital dollars have completely defied the previous norms of investment and money making. It’s the Wild West, with digital gold up for grabs and outlaws roaming the field for the biggest margins in tens of cryptocurrencies that have since followed the success of bitcoins.

However, as neither an expert nor a participant in the craze, I am the last person to tackle the topic of cryptocurrency. Instead, it is precisely the fact that I do not partake in the trading that got me thinking; as I see friends jump one after another on the bandwagon, a small part of me wonders if I am making the right choice. What if I am missing out on the biggest opportunity of my life? The opportunity to make big bucks fast with just a single finger — no one could reject such an offer, especially when the results of crypto-investments are almost terrifyingly successful. And there are tens of thousands of Koreans currently immersed in the same worry and regret who are eyeing the market to see if there is space for them just yet.

The yearning for quick earnings exist in all of us, but it especially dominates South Korea. Pyramid schemes, short-term stocks, and speculations are everywhere, even in large legal corporations. Korea’s major telecommunication companies, SKT, KT, and LG, caused controversy in 2016 with widespread use of its “network sales” as the system resulted in concentration of wealth for few and the hiked prices of even older models or packages. SKT and KT eventually pulled back on the operations, while LG U+ still decided to maintain the system, stating that as long as it followed the legal guidelines, the network system did not face many problems.

For us to attribute the epidemic of such practices to the general public being ignorant and lazy is ignorant and lazy in and of itself. The media constantly warns the public of the dangers that belie these operations and those that fall are fully aware of what joining one entails. In fact, what drives the people is the opposite of laziness. Data from the OECD Employment Outlook 2017 shows that South Koreans are the second-most overworked employees amongst OECD countries, with an average of 2,069 hours per year in comparison to an overall average of 1,764 from 35 countries. And though the minimum wage has risen this year to 7,530 KRW per hour, it has instead caused employers to seek loopholes such as increasing “break” time or hiring more temporary workers without full benefits. In fact, the excessive amount of work with below average pay precisely pushes the poor and tired into the risky investments.

In addition, it’s no wonder cryptocurrency trading is currently the “rage” amongst the young. Of course, the first major advantage that those in their 20s and 30s have is the easy access to and adeptness at technology. With many exchange sites such as UPbit operating on PC and smartphones, the younger generation can easily set up new accounts (although as of this article, new accounts are not possible for most exchange sites) and generate revenue through constant monitoring and opportune trading.

However, technological access is a facilitator and not necessarily the cause; the real reason as to why perhaps such a large percentage of young — and mostly male — workers who turn towards cryptocurrency or even the Ponzi schemes is the desperation coming from the nebulous economic future of the Korean society. According to the Ministry of Strategy and Finance, the percentage of population in the middle class suddenly shrank by 1.7%, after five years of steady increase, likely due to the increased unemployment rate and competition in self-employment. While Korea boasts a high number of college graduates, the diploma provides no guarantee towards a better quality of life and higher income expected of the expensive education. In the end, it’s not necessarily the instant income boost promised by cryptocurrency and pyramid sales that pulls in the vulnerable youth; it’s instead the abysmal job opportunities and conditions that push them into the market, with the full knowledge of the risks. Even for a bit of pocket money, even just a bit of a chance at making more dough is better than the nothing guaranteed by the stagnant market in the physical world.

Regulations for cryptocurrency are in urgent need, and Korea has so far scrambled to stop the speculation by blocking new accounts. With talks of completely banning cryptocurrency investments in Korea, in an attempt to deter new participants and if not, at least benefit from the rapidly changing market. Simultaneously, however, perhaps the South Korean government should look towards why so many young workers flock towards the crypto market.

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