SEOUL, South Korea – Kim Ki-won keeps the secret on her parents.

It is not only that he has bought and sold a considerable number of digital pieces. Mr. Kim, who is 27 years old and lives with his parents, once earned so much money by trading crypto – currencies that he spent $ 1,000 a month for everything he wanted. . He left his job. He borrowed to buy more. He had planned to buy a house.

Today, he is sitting, slouching, sometimes hiding his eyes behind his hair. Which brings us back to Mr. Kim's secret: he lost a lot of money, maybe tens of thousands of dollars.

"I do not think it's fair that people call it the game," he said of his obsession with cryptocurrency. "But there are elements of truth here and there."

A generation of young South Koreans like Mr. Kim, looking for a way out of their dead ends, helped make the country a crypto-currency capital of the wild world. Now that the market has practically collapsedMany young and old people are stuck in debt and loss. Nevertheless, many young South Koreans continue to view digital currency as a way of distinguishing themselves.

South Korea remains the third largest market for virtual currency, behind the United States and Japan. A total of $ 6.8 billion in cryptocurrency changed hands in January, according to data provider Messari. South Korea is a major trading hub for Bitcoin, the best-known cryptocurrency, as well as a wide variety of other virtual currencies that exist without the support of the country's central bank.

Cryptocurrencies have become a cultural phenomenon in the country.

Cafes print their own digital pieces. A national television channel created a game show called "Block Battle," in which competitors – one named "Kimchi Powered" – fought to create a business based on cryptotechnology.

At a recent evening in Seoul, a group of women and men in their 60s and 60s gathered at an event enlightened by strobe lights for the launch of A new digital coin.

But millennia like Mr. Kim led the charge. Many call it "dirt spoons", a reference in South Korea to economic and social status, with gold and silver teaspoons being the best and dusting spoons the worst.

Crypto-currencies seemed to be a means of disrupting this social order.

"In South Korea, there is no real possibility for an ordinary young person," said 23-year-old Kim Han-gyeol, who graduated from a vocational school and became a part-time software developer for an e-book company.

She lives with her parents and works part-time at Dunkin 'Donuts, where she studies English online at night.

At first, she made a lot of money by investing in cryptocurrencies. She used a few thousand dollars that she bought to buy nice clothes for her and her mother and dreamed of starting a coffee with her booty. Then, she has lost almost everything.

"I felt ashamed when I lost money on my Bitcoin investments, not once but twice, because of my thirst for making money all at once," she said. declared. Even so, she added, she's going to stick to digital parts.

"In any case, there is nowhere to go to recover my losses," she said.

Being young in South Korea can be defeated and suffocating. To succeed, one must either hold a government position or hold a position in one of the small but powerful groups of family conglomerates that control most of the products that Koreans use. This requires entering one of the few exclusive universities, a feat that has become so difficult that many young people are slow to apply for several years.

Income inequality is one of the worst in Asia. The youth unemployment rate is 10.5% and has been around this figure for five years, while the overall unemployment rate is 3.4%.

The young Koreans are called the "sampo generation", a coat rack referring to the three things they gave up on: courtship, marriage and family.

To their sense of disillusion is added a series of political scandals, including the one that led to the dismissal of former President Park Geun-hye, which highlighted the deeply rooted links between South Korea's powerful conglomerates and politicians.

When cryptocurrency first appeared, it sparked discussions in chat rooms, weekly meeting places and even intellectual fairs created solely for digital pieces: could this new system uproot the rigid social order of the South Korea?

Buying digital parts was much easier than buying shares or getting a loan to start a business. Kim Ki-won had to invest only very little in the early days. "It was an opportunity for me to make a lot of money," he said, his eyes wide with enthusiasm even as he thought about the prospect.

For 29-year-old Remy Kim, host of several cryptocurrency channels on the Telegram social media app, digital money could only mean a revolution.

In line, he passes for "Les Mis", after "Les Miserables", the story of Victor Hugo on the poor who rise in revolution. Mr. Kim writes about Cryptopia, a future where everyone is equal and where social construction created by money does not exist.

"Crypto played a role in transferring wealth from one group of society to another," he said. "It has affected Korean society tremendously."

Mr. Kim discovered cryptocurrencies after his computer was hacked by a person who had asked Bitcoin for ransom. In the end, he paid the 1.2 Bitcoins hacker, which was worth around 800 dollars at the time.

Soon, he was buying digital parts, riding a Bitcoin bubble peaking at over $ 19,000 for a single Bitcoin.

He did enough to buy a half-million dollar Navy Rolls-Royce. As far as he knows, "I am the youngest person in Korea with a Rolls-Royce," he said.

Mr. Kim stated that he has since lost much of what he has made, but he does not like to dwell on it. (He still has the rolls.)

Last year, The South Korean government thinks close the virtual currency exchanges where investors buy and sell, saying that it was starting to look a lot like gambling.

At the time, some exchanges dealt with transactions worth several hundred million dollars. But the news provoked a general outcry and the government simply banned cryptocurrency investors from opening new, anonymous accounts linked to banks in an effort to fight money laundering.

Even some ancient cryptocurrency evangelists warn that the best days are over. Among them, Kimchi Powered, the competitor of the television show "Block Battle".

Kimchi Powered, whose real name is Jung Ki-young, made it to the show finale, partly entertaining the judges with ridiculous costumes. On the night of the last round, Mr. Jung, 36, wore a shimmery suit jacket.

He still invests in crypto-currencies, but warns others that there are not as many opportunities to make money as before.

"Many people are very depressed these days because the price of bitcoin has dropped," he said in an interview. "My intention was to give people a reason to laugh rather than try to win the contest."

Falling prices are not the only reason why South Koreans can no longer earn money as before.

Large companies are increasingly obscuring small investors. Hyundai, a major conglomerate, created a blockchain platform called HDAC and announced technology at the World Cup. A unit of Lotte, a conglomerate that was involved in a corruption scandal in 2017, worked with blockchain start-ups.

A number of South Koreans have also been victims of scams.

"Koreans lack knowledge of finance," said Remy Kim, the investor who goes through Les Mis and who gives advice and information on how cryptocurrencies work. "They're smart at the store, but they've poured everything into crypto-currencies."

Nevertheless, many dirt spoons keep the hope that the cryptocurrencies will reconvert.

Kim Ki-won said that he would soon talk to his parents about his obsession with cryptocurrency. But first, he wants to earn enough to start a business. It is sure that the market will turn around.

"I have nothing to lose," he said. "I've always wanted to be rich."