The four -- Upbit, Korbit, Coinone and Bithumb -- were able to apply for registration by undertaking the long list of anti-money laundering and security measures required by financial authorities. As of Tuesday, Upbit and Korbit have received approval from the Financial Services Commission, while Coinone and Bithumb are awaiting the outcome of their registration of virtual asset businesses.
The increasingly strict grip on the virtual asset industry by government bodies comes as cryptocurrencies have experienced a second boom that has boosted their profits. Now granted or to be granted with the approval for normal business operations, experts say they are expected to become market blue chips if they succeed in carrying out initial public offerings in the coming years -- becoming a potential new jackpot for investors who made large bets even before the market had taken shape.
The market valuation of Dunamu, operator of Upbit, the largest among the four, is estimated at 12 trillion won ($10.2 billion), based on the value of over-the-counter stocks. Market valuations are yet to come for its smaller rivals. But expectations are high, as they are all enjoying a fruitful year.
Upbit has brought in 10 billion won a day this year. Dunamu’s operating profit and revenue stood at 1.87 trillion won and 2.02 trillion won, respectively, in the first half of 2021. Meanwhile, Bithumb made a net profit of 600 billion won also in the first half of the year alone. Coinone reported 94.3 billion won in net profit during the same period. After two years of losses, Korbit turned around in 2020 with 5.8 billion won in net profit and is expected to record a jump like the other major crypto exchanges.
Dunamu’s largest shareholders are its founders -- Chairman Song Chi-hyuong, who owns 26.31 percent, and Vice President Kim Hyeong-nyeon, with 13.51 percent. Kakao and its affiliates hold around a 19 percent share.
Bithumb’s largest shareholder is Vident, a Kosdaq-listed digital broadcasting equipment developer and maker, which has 10.3 percent ownership of Bithumb Korea and 34.2 percent of Bithumb.
However, Lee Jung-hun, former chairman of Bithumb Holdings, has secured a total of 65 percent, which encompasses both his personal shares and those that he acquired via two paper companies established in Hong Kong -- DAA and BTHMB Holdings.
Vident first acquired a stake in Bithumb in 2017 and increased its holding gradually. This year, other companies ranging from a game maker to a bio company directly and indirectly jumped in to secure stakes in Bithumb.
In particular, Wemade, creator of hit game series The Legend of Mir, carried out an investment worth 100 billion won in Vident earlier this year in hopes to get involved in Bithumb’s operation. Recently, a meeting of Bithumb’s board of directors elected Chang Hyun-kuk, CEO of Wemade, as a new board member.
“We‘re happy to join Bithumb’s journey to grow to a global exchange,” Chang said when announcing the investment in Vident on July 15.
For Coinone, the past two years have been consumed by the efforts of the founder, 32-year-old Cha Myung-hun, to secure a major stake in the company. Cha founded the company in 2014, and in 2015 he lost majority control to Dayli Financial Group (since renamed Gowid), which once held as much as 74.59 percent of the company. Now, through his own personal shares and those of a company he controls, he has established a 54.47 percent stake.
The only other major named investor is Gamevil Plus, which agreed to acquire an additional 21.96 percent stake for 53.9 billion won in September, and will hold a total of 38.43 percent by January 2022. This strategic investor, which is wholly owned by Kosdaq-listed Gamevil, first purchased 13 percent in May 2021, marking the third time the firm upped its share in the company. The remaining 7.1 percent is held by numerous small parties.
Korbit was the second to be given the green light from financial authorities and has a relatively stable ownership structure. Korbit’s largest shareholder is NXC, a holding company of mobile game maker Nexon, 67.49 percent of which is still held by founder Kim Jung-joo. NXC and its affiliate together hold 65 percent in Korbit, while Korbit founder Tony Lyu has 29.37 percent. Lyu stepped down as CEO in 2018.
Nexon is one of the market pioneers in terms of investing in virtual assets. NXC acquired Korbit in 2017 and Nexon purchased 1,717 bitcoins for about $100 million earlier this year. Kim of Nexon once mulled an acquisition of Bithumb, according to media reports.
The growing interest from game makers in crypto exchanges -- Wemade in Bithumb, Gamevil in Coinone, Nexon in Korbit -- is a strategy of killing two birds with one stone. On one hand, the investments seem lucrative considering soaring valuations, and on the other hand the game industry and virtual assets could create opportunities in the areas of nonfungible tokens in the cyber world, according to market observers.
However, their journey to an IPO is not without challenges, given that the cryptocurrency industry is now under the purview of South Korea’s financial watchdog after the Act on the Specified Financial Transaction Information went into effect this year. And more upcoming anti-money laundering measures and a cryptocurrency law that is under discussion at the National Assembly will likely lead to a standardization of transparency expectations, experts say.
On Wednesday, the country’s finance minister once again downplayed the possibility of delaying taxation on cryptocurrency earnings, while emphasizing that the ministry is gearing up step by step to carry out its plan to levy a 20 percent tax on capital gains for cryptocurrency above 2.5 million won from Jan. 1, 2022.
His comments came as the price of a bitcoin climbed to above 79 million won on Wednesday, close to the historic high of 80 million won that was recorded in April.