South Korea’s FIU unveils strategy to block illicit crypto platforms

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South Korea is set to intensify its scrutiny of virtual asset exchanges with plans to conduct inspections and block platforms that do not meet regulatory standards later this year. 

The Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) has outlined a comprehensive “2024 Work Plan,” which includes consultations with the Policy Advisory Committee to gather expert opinions. This strategy aims to safeguard the Korean won market from unauthorized exchanges and enhance anti-money laundering (AML) protocols to identify and remove non-compliant operators. Lawyers and accountants will be enlisted to support these efforts.

The FIU’s approach includes a two-phase inspection process, beginning with an initial assessment of money laundering risks and market functionality in the first half of 2024. A more thorough investigation will follow in the latter half, targeting virtual asset operators failing to adhere to regulatory standards. The initiative will extend to evaluating major shareholders and applying stricter disqualification criteria for those with a history of legal violations or poor social credit, such as debt defaults.

An emphasis on aligning with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) guidelines reflects a commitment to international best practices, particularly in preempting and halting suspicious transactions during investigations. South Korea, a significant player in the global cryptocurrency market, hosts some of the world’s major exchanges and accounts for a substantial portion of global crypto trading.

Regulatory measures in South Korea are becoming stricter, with imminent rules targeting crypto firms for allegations of fraud, embezzlement, and trust violations, effective from July 19. Last year’s legislative proposals set the stage for drastic penalties for market manipulation, including significant fines and the possibility of life sentences for major infractions.

Dubbed the Virtual Asset User Protection Act, this new regulation outlaws market manipulation, illicit trading, and the exploitation of non-public information, introducing life imprisonment as a potential penalty for generating illegal profits over 5 billion won. Additionally, it requires that virtual asset exchanges maintain user funds through banks and secure the majority of users’ digital assets in a manner disconnected from the internet, thereby elevating the security and reliability of the digital asset ecosystem.

In a related development, following the Coin Gate scandal, a mandate now requires high-ranking public officials to disclose their cryptocurrency holdings. The move aims to enhance transparency and accountability amidst concerns over insider trading within the political sphere.

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