In the recent bitcoin frenzy, one country has gone particularly wild.
In South Korea, students are checking the price between classes, workers are trading it as they line up for coffee, and grandparents are playing the market at home.

Virtual currencies
might be a fringe play elsewhere — but in South Korea, they’re mainstream. The country is home to three of the world’s biggest bitcoin exchanges. On any given day, South Korea accounts for as much as 20% of all bitcoin trades around the world.

“First, it was just tech people. Now, literally everyone is interested in bitcoin,” said Isaac Chung, a college student who says he’s made thousands of dollars trading digital currencies.

Bitcoin’s value has jumped 1,500% so far this year to $17,000 as more and more people have bought into it.

It’s in such high demand on Korean exchanges that South Koreans often end up paying a premium of between 15% and 25% over global prices. Local traders call it the “kimchi premium,” referencing the country’s popular fermented cabbage dish.

Mom-and-pop investors are willing to pay a higher price in the hope that bitcoin will continue its dizzying rise.

“They see it as gambling in some ways, they try to earn more money by using exchanges,” said Kim Duyoung, a manager at bitcoin brokerage Coinplug.