If nothing else, 2019 has so far demonstrated that even in the midst of the crypto winter, Korean government organizations and major corporations remain keenly interested in blockchain technology. As Quartz reported about Korea last December:

“Yet, from the ashes of the crypto craze, a blockchain boom has emerged. There are already projects underway, backed by heavyweight local businesses, that could bring services built on blockchain platforms into the lives of almost every Korean. Beyond the private sector, government agencies are also embracing distributed ledgers, including a blockchain-based voting system.

If successful, these projects would bring blockchain into the mainstream in one of the world’s most advanced economies. Even more notably, this is all taking place in a remarkable regulatory limbo.”

While public and corporate support bodes well for the future of blockchain, it tells us little about what ordinary Koreans – the kinds of people recently profiled in the New York Times’s piece on Korea’s crypto crash – think about the technology. How does the proverbial man or woman on the street see the future of blockchain? How do they think it will impact their lives? Will they continue to invest in it?

More realistic expectations

As for the whether individual Koreans will continue to invest in blockchain, the answer would seem to be yes.

The country remains one of the world’s largest markets for cryptocurrency trading. How long that lasts, however, really depends on whether the global cryptocurrency market can recover and on the development achieved. Though the factors driving the first phase of Korea’s crypto craze – namely, the dead end economic prospects many young Koreans perceive they face – have not changed, cryptocurrencies’ ability to offer immediate salvation has.

That said, if the technology matures and the sector consolidates, separating the real players from the wannabes, this could draw in more conservative investors looking for safer, more long-term investments.

Blockchain = cryptocurrency?

This leads us to the bigger question, “What do ordinary Koreans think of blockchain as a technology?”

Well, in a poll taken last year (Korean*), 87% of Korean respondents said they were aware of cryptocurrency, and a full 60 percent said they understood what cryptocurrency was. These numbers were quite high – indeed, Koreans boasted the highest levels of cryptocurrency awareness in the world and the second-highest levels of cryptocurrency understanding behind Japan.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that polls and research (Korean*) suggest that ordinary Koreans equate cryptocurrencies and the underlying blockchain technology. This is to say in the eyes of many, blockchain = cryptocurrency (and Bitcoin, specifically). While interest in blockchain-powered services – and financial services in particular – was rising, there seemed to be little interest in blockchain technology itself. As an official at one blockchain-related company told this writer, “the level of ignorance of the technology is shocking.”

Considering how the crypto boom was driven by the desire to get rich quick rather than faith in or even a basic understanding of the revolutionary potential of decentralized computing, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Many observers are predicting 2019 will be the year we’ll see the mass adoption of blockchain, and with many Korean government organizations and corporate giants pushing blockchain projects, Koreans will no doubt get greater exposure to the technology. This, in turn, will lead to better comprehension and appreciation. Until then, however, don’t expect the widespread belief that “blockchain=cryptocurrency” to change.

To be fair, in conflating blockchain with cryptocurrency, Koreans probably join the majority of the planet, if the media focus on Bitcoin and other digital currencies is anything to go by.

Academics get it, though

Though the public at large still looks at blockchain as a potentially life-changing investment opportunity and little more, the scholars are taking the technology very, very seriously.

According to DBpia, Korea’s largest academic database platform, four of the top 10 searched academic theses in 2018 dealt with blockchain. Moreover, of the roughly 30,000 theses published on the platform in 2018, 75 were about blockchain. This accords with global trends – according to influential science magazine Nature, blockchain was the second-most searched term on the international scholarly database Scopus in 2018.

As of late last year, seven major Korean universities had introduced blockchain majors.

What this suggests is that universities sense a social demand for blockchain experts, even if society itself doesn’t yet perceive said demand. Likewise, investment from the government and the likes of Samsung, SK, KT, Naver and Kakao indicates the technology is here to stay. Even if most people see blockchain as a get-rich scheme today, it won’t be too long before they see it as so much more.