Crypto and ketamine: The murder that shocked South Korea

Crypto and ketamine: The murder that shocked South Korea
Crypto and ketamine: The murder that shocked South Korea

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - This picture taken on April 9, 2023 shows South Korean Lee Kyung-woo (centre), who was arrested on charges of kidnapping and murdering a woman, being escorted by authorities as he is transferred to the prosecution from a police station in Seoul. — Picture by Yonhap via AFP

SEOUL, Dec 13 — It reads like a K-drama plot: an ex-spy kidnaps a woman from an upscale district of Seoul over a crypto dispute, then kills her with drugs from a plastic surgery clinic.


The case of purported spy-turned-hitman Lee Kyung-woo, who was sentenced to life in prison in October, has shocked South Korea, a safe and almost drug-free country where violent killings are rare.

The country has, however, had issues with crypto crime. It was home to fallen crypto king Do Kwon, currently in a Montenegrin jail awaiting extradition over the spectacular multi-billion-dollar collapse of his Terra and Luna tokens.

At the centre of the gruesome homicide case is another collapsed cryptocurrency called PURE, based in the Seychelles but run by a Korean who was arrested last month on fraud and market manipulation charges.


A couple who had lost at least a billion won (RM3.5 million) in PURE hired hitman Lee — who claimed to be a former undercover agent for missions in North Korea — to kill the woman who had encouraged them to invest in the currency, and steal her digital assets.

For 70 million won, Lee masterminded the woman’s kidnapping and murder.

On March 29 this year, the victim was abducted from a street in the Seoul district of Gangnam, drugged, coerced into handing over her crypto passwords, and then killed, with her body buried in the countryside 140 kilometres (85 miles) from the capital.


The ketamine used to sedate and then kill the 48-year-old woman came from Lee’s wife, a nurse at a plastic surgery clinic, who gave it to him even though she was aware of his “intentions to commit a crime”, court documents obtained by AFP showed.

“It is difficult to estimate the fear and pain the victim must have felt when she was abruptly kidnapped by strangers in the middle of Seoul... and dragged to the hills near Daejeon to die,” judge Kim Seung-jeong of the Seoul Central District Court wrote in the ruling.

Spying claims

South Korea has long been regarded as one of Asia’s crypto hotspots, but spectacular, criminal implosions like that of Do Kwon’s tokens have shaken retail confidence and drawn official scrutiny to the sector.

Local officials have expressed concern over rising criminality linked to the industry, even this year creating a new inter-agency investigative unit to fight crypto crime.

Hitman Lee lost his health club business during the pandemic and poured his life savings into PURE — which lost 95 per cent of its value in early 2021.

Court documents said that Lee felt he had to use “any means necessary” to make money.

Lee told clients he was a former military agent for missions in North Korea, court documents showed. Citing a court hearing, local media have suggested his claim was true.

Lee also claimed he could “resolve matters” for the couple “by engaging in illegal methods” and discussed potential plans for the murder that included hiring a Chinese hitman and stealing the victim’s organs.

Lee and his accomplices used ketamine to first incapacitate and abduct the victim, allowing her to regain consciousness when they tried, unsuccessfully, to extort her IDs and passwords to steal her digital assets.

They then administered a fatal dose, with court documents identifying the official cause of death as “ketamine poisoning”.

‘Lifelong loneliness’

The cryptocurrency PURE, which claimed it revolved around a service that uses blockchain to manage indoor air quality, was delisted in May, just over a month after the victim was killed.

Authorities said “giving wrong information to investors” was among the reasons for its delisting.

The couple who hired Lee — identified as Yoo Sang-won and Hwang Eun-hee — were respectively sentenced to eight and six years in prison.

Lee’s two accomplices, Hwang Dae-han and Yeon Ji-ho, who abducted and killed the victim under Lee’s supervision, were given a life sentence and 25 years in prison, respectively.

The mastermind’s wife, who supplied the ketamine, also received a jail term of five years.

But the “lifelong loneliness and profound sense of loss to be experienced by the victim’s elementary school-aged son who lost his mother are likely to be difficult for anyone to heal”, judge Kim wrote in the ruling.

“Above all, it is truly unimaginable to fathom the shock that he would experience if he were to realise that his mother, whom he currently believes died from Covid-19, was actually murdered,” the judge added. — AFP

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