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(ITU) (Yonhap Interview) Bitcoin evangelist envisions fast growth in tech-savvy S. Korea

2014/10/24 14:36

By Kim Eun-jung

BUSAN, Oct. 24 (Yonhap) -- Bitcoin evangelist Roger Ver is certain that more tech-savvy young Koreans will use the world's most popular crypto currency once they have wider options to buy things and easily convert it into their own currency, which is why he encourages software developers and retailers to join the virtual economy.

There's still skepticism about Bitcoin in South Korea, where no mainstream merchants accept the virtual currency. Major banks, however, have provided a series of mobile payment applications.

Ver, referred to as "Bitcoin Jesus" in the cyber currency world, said there is huge growth potential in one of the world's most connected nations.

"Korea is growing very, very quickly, and it's still growing," the 35-year-old millionaire said during a recent interview with Yonhap News Agency in Busan, a southern port city he visited to attend an IT forum. "Koreans love tech stuff. They love Internet games and cyber money, so I think once Koreans get access to this type of coin, they will love it."

   Ver, who has helped start several businesses involving the virtual currency, said software developers can create payment solutions and local currency exchanges for Bitcoin and not worry about fees and legal obligations related to money transactions.

A woman shows Korean money withdrawn from an ATM that handles Bitcoin transactions, located at COEX Mall in southern Seoul. (Yonhap file photo) A woman shows Korean money withdrawn from an ATM that handles Bitcoin transactions, located at COEX Mall in southern Seoul. (Yonhap file photo)

"If you are a cellphone company operator or a software developer, you can design the software which allows transaction, but you don't have to control money ever," Ver said. "Bitcoin allows the users to control the currency and it's up to users what they're doing with Bitcoin. A software company does not have to control the Bitcoin, and they're not allowed to."

   Although public awareness remains low with only three Bitcoin ATMs in the capital Seoul, Bitcoin startups have seen more investment coming from in and out of the country.

Korbit, which first launched the first won-Bitcoin exchange last year, raised US$3 million from SoftBank Ventures Korea and Pantera Capital. Coinplug, another Bitcoin startup company that opened Asia's first two-way Bitcoin ATM in Seoul, earlier this month signed a $2.5 million deal with the venture investment arm of Mirae Asset, a Seoul-based financial firm.

Ver argued that Bitcoin is the easiest way to send and receive money outside the country and buy things online, saying he pays most of his expenses with it. He booked his trip to Korea at Expedia, the world's largest online booking agency, and withdrew cash in local currency from an ATM machine using his phone.

"When people have options for using something else other than government-issued currencies, they're going to choose Bitcoin," Ver said. "That will happen very quickly."

   Ver is one of hundreds of investors that have struck it big with Bitcoin as he began investing in it when each unit was worth around $1 in early 2011. It was trading at around $350, about 380,000 won, as of Friday

"When it first started, it was considered a 'dream coin,' but now governments all over the world have started to pay attention to Bitcoin and to think of what sort of revolution they want to make in regards to the coin," said Ver.

Bitcoin fixes the total quantity of cyber currency rather than fixing the value of the virtual currency against paper money. It relies on a public ledger and cryptography to record transactions.

When it comes to the number of users, however, Ver said he doesn't know despite his access to the Bitcoin transaction database at Blockchain because users can hold multiple wallets.

"It's impossible to know because it's hard to know just like how many people have e-mail addresses because there are so many different email service providers," Ver said, illustrating the decentralized characteristic of the cyber currency.

Showing a price chart over the past years, Ver said the dollar value of that cyber currency has fluctuated sharply, but overall it has soared as users are quickly growing in number. So buying into Bitcoin has, at least so far, been a good investment.

"It was almost zero and now there are almost 2.5 million users of Bitcoin," Ver said. "It started to grow every single week because people see it's very easy to use and helps streamline sending money with anyone, anytime at an incredible rate."

   If it gains in popularity as he anticipates, each Bitcoin would be worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said, as he urged more Koreans to increase their cyber wealth.

In contrast, Korean financial officials remain skeptical over the virtual currency's success in Asia's fourth-largest economy.

In December, former central banker Kim Choong-soo said Bitcoin will not be widely used in the private sector due to its broad range of price fluctuation and the possibility of it being used in illegal transactions. In a report submitted to the parliament earlier this month, the Bank of Korea reiterated its negative stance over the cyber currency's future.

Ver argued that the Korean won has its own weaknesses in terms of price fluctuation, swinging in a wide range in the past decade.

"The Korean won has a huge fluctuation because central bankers decide for everybody in Korea how many won can be printed," Ver said. "If you and I print more won, we can go to jail for counterfeiting. But when central bankers do it, they call it fancy things economically like stimulus quantitative easing. But it's the exact same thing."

   He went further to advocate a free economy via the crypto currency, taking the example of changed perceptions on the state and religion. While separation of church and state sounded like a crazy idea in the Middle Ages, it is now accepted as common sense. Just like that, having a worldwide crypto currency to empower people is a "wonderful thing," Ver said.

What if a government bans exchanging the virtual currency out of fear of losing its grip on money and tax? Ver answered it's not going to happen as long as computers and phones exist in this world to deal with the cyber money.

"It's fast, it's cheap to use, it's private, and central governments can't take it away," he said.