List tokens while the sun shines
S. Korean exchanges maximized transaction fees by listing coins en masse throughout the past year
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임준혁 2021년 8월18일 19:05
업비트, 빗썸, 코인원, 코빗 등 국내 4대 암호화폐 거래소 로고. 출처=각 거래소.
업비트, 빗썸, 코인원, 코빗 등 국내 4대 암호화폐 거래소 로고. 출처=각 거래소.

[First of two-part series]

South Korea’s crypto community is dominated by four exchanges. They’re commonly referred to as the Big 4: Upbit, Bithumb, Coinone, and Korbit.

The Big 4 have seen remarkable growth throughout the past year. In January 2021 the Big 4 registered a collective transaction volume of 304 trillion won (around $260 billion). By April of this year that had exploded to over 1.32 quadrillion won ($1.1 trillion). The Big 4's growth volume quadrupled in just three months.

Part of this explosion can be attributed to the tremendous growth in the global crypto ecosystem during the same period. According to Coinmarketcap, the global crypto market cap in January 2021 stood at around $722.5 billion. This exceeded $2 trillion by mid-April. This period is also when Bitcoin surpassed $60,000 for the first time back in March, so global interest in crypto was at an all-time high.

While exchanges benefit from overall market growth, they ultimately rely on transaction fees. The more transactions on a particular exchange, the more money they earn.

Coinbase, the largest exchange in the US, reported $2.2 billion in revenue in its Q2 earnings report. Transaction fees accounted for $1.9 billion, or over 86%, of that revenue.

In order to maximize profits from transaction fees, an exchange will naturally seek to maximize transaction volume. But how?

Simple. Maximize the number of tokens available for trading. The more tokens listed, the more transactions facilitated and the more transaction fees earned.

To see how aggressively the Big 4 listed token projects throughout the past year, the reporters at CoinDesk Korea went through the archives of all four exchanges and meticulously counted how many projects were listed, keeping track of when projects were listed and when they were delisted.

None of the exchanges have this data laid out in a neat, accessible format. Trust me when I say our staff went through hell to acquire and organize all the necessary data. We also put our two interns through the grinder. Hopefully they got something out of the experience other than bloodshot eyes and an ulcer.


2020-2021: the year of token listings

In January 2020, the Big 4 had 476 trading pairs listed. This figure rose steadily throughout the following year, peaking at 781 in June 2021 and then settling down to 749 as of Aug. 10 of this year.

In January 2020, Upbit dominated the domestic market, offering a whopping 265 trading pairs and comprising 56% of the trading pairs on the Big 4. This was more than the remaining three combined (211). However, Bithumb and Coinone soon began listing as many tokens as they could, and by August 2021, Bithumb occupied 33% of the available trading pairs, while Coinone occupied 26%.

Upbit still remains at the top of the pack, but their share of the pie has since dwindled to 34%.

Korbit, however, has remained the most conservative among the pack, consistently occupying a mere 6% of available trading pairs throughout the past year.

업비트, 빗썸, 코인원, 코빗의 코인 거래쌍. 출처=한겨레
The number of trading pairs offered by Upbit, Bithumb, Coinone, and Korbit by month, from January 2020 to Aug. 10, 2021. Source= The Hankyoreh
Dark blue: Upbit
Light blue: Bithumb
Green: Coinone
Orange: Korbit


The fintech firm Dunamu launched Upbit in October 2017, partnering with the US exchange to support 115 trading pairs from the get-go. Back then, most domestic exchanges only had around five trading pairs.

Within two months of its launch, Upbit had 1.2 million registered users and recorded transaction volumes of up to 10 trillion won ($8.6 billion), eclipsing not only other Korean exchanges but most exchanges in the world.

Upbit's domination of the market in such a short amount of time is undoubtedly linked to the sheer number of trading pairs it supported.

Upbit consistently maintained their policy of listing as many projects as possible, listing as many as 16 tokens a month at times. This policy also set a trend in the domestic market, with competitors quickly following suit.


After Upbit's arrival on the scene in 2017, Bithumb stepped up its game. They began listing between four to 10 tokens a month. In January 2020, Bithumb supported 107 trading pairs.

Starting in December 2020, they started listing as many as 20 a month. As of Aug. 10, 2021, they supported 249 trading pairs, meaning they listed over 140 projects within nine months.


Coinone, run by a former white hacker, became the first domestic exchange to list ether in 2016. In 2017, after listing projects like XRP and Bitcoin Cash, they rose to the number two spot in Korea in terms of transaction volume. As indicated above, they were quickly overtaken by Upbit.

At first, Coinone approached listings cautiously, adopting a conservative approach and proudly touting its "strict listing standards."

Back in January 2020, they only supported 76 trading pairs.

In the middle of that year, however, that began to change. Before August 2020, they listed six projects or less per month, but starting September they increased their listings to as many as 15 per month. As of Aug. 10, Coinone supports 198 trading pairs.



Korbit became the country's first crypto exchange when it launched in 2013. It has since remained the most conservative exchange among the Big 4 in terms of its listings.

As of Aug. 13, Korbit's trade volume accounts for just 0.5% off Upbit's, more evidence suggesting the direct correlation between the number of projects listed and trade volume.

In January 2020, Korbit supported 28 trading pairs. Upbit supported 265 at this time. Korbit has gradually listed more projects since then, supporting 47 trading pairs as of Aug. 10.

At a time when other exchanges were listing anywhere between 10 to 20 projects a month, Korbit listed six or less per month.


The conclusion is simple: exchanges that listed as many projects as possible made the most money.

The next part of this series will explore why exchanges suddenly started scrapping coins in delisting dumps, and how this may have negatively impacted Korean traders.

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