Korea: Casino Addiction

28/08/2012 13:09 BST | Updated 26/10/2012 10:12 BST

Many South Koreans believe that they are innately disposed to fall into addiction. They are very wary after many tales of famous celebrities succumbing to the pitfalls of addiction. The country has a tough stance on drugs and is very cautious in making available anything they deem addictive to its inhabitants. Despite its best efforts there are a few exceptions that have slipped through the net. Koreans not only love their national spirit soju, which is drunk with alarming vigour, but also famously the internet. Stories are abound about internet addiction, considered a very series issue by the Korean government. Attempts to try lure youngsters away from all night gaming sessions are still ongoing but there is a more adult addiction that often re-appears in the Korean media.

In 2000, Korea opened its first and only casino open to Korean residents. There are another 16 casino's dotted about Korea and posters at the airport will have you believe that gambling is a popular activity on the streets of Seoul but those casinos are restricted to foreigners only. Robert De Niro graces some adverts, View image, for a local casino chain trying to attract foreign tourists or businessmen to splash their hard earned Korean won. The one Korean accommodating casino however is far from the hustle and bustle of Seoul. Located in Kangwon Land approximately 3.5 hours away from Seoul it's not the easiest of locations to get to. The casino is set in a large resort complex that offers skiing in winter and golf and a host of other attractions during the summer months. Despite wanting to lure families to the area it is largely the casino that gets the most attention and indeed it is reported that 90% of Kangwon Land's revenue hails from the casino itself. The idea of one casino is faintly similar to the idea of the UK's ditched plan to build a super casino in Manchester. The proposition was axed in 2008 and the idea came under similar scrutiny as Kangwon Land does.

The casino was allowed to be built to improve the local economy that used to be a set of coal mining communities. However since its 2000 opening it has had its far share of criticism. Many scandals have been dug up about the casino and many cite it as having a negative effect on society and on the region it was intended to help support. The CEO, Choi Heung-Jip said in an interview, "we'll make Korea's best vacation spot at an altitude of some 1,000m that underpins the regional economy". While it was once worried that swathes of homeless gambling addicts would hover outside the gates ready to resume their addiction once the casino re-opened each morning the casino in fact takes quite a lot of care to try to at least appear to be trying to prevent levels of addiction escalating. The casino has its very own gambling addiction centre and restricts entrance into the casino for only 1 day a month for locals and 15 days a month for those outside the local area. Despite the attempts some nefarious characters still linger and entice the populace into falling into a pit of addiction.

There are reports that those living in Seoul who are desperate to get their gambling fix in a hurry can take illegal taxis to get to the casino. While the drive should take 3.5 hours there are taxi's known as "bullet taxi's" that are specifically for those rolling out of the work on a Friday desperate to hit the casino who will take them from downtown Seoul to the casino in around 100 minutes. They race at over 100mp/h and charge large fee's to get you there but the costly addition to the gambling doesn't end there.

Even before entering it is a common feature to call ahead to unofficially reserve a seat. The casino has become so popular that there are many calls to expand or to create more casinos available to the Korean public. There are around 2,000 seats available and easily double the number in attendance who wish to take a seat but have to bide their time before they can begin gambling. Thus it is common practice to get a professional customer to sit at a table of your desired game of choice and hold the seat for you until you arrive. Even then you have many people watching the hands unfold so betting via them to win money is not uncommon to see. The people who hold the seats are usually paid around $100-$150 for the service and are made up of bankrupted gamblers looking for some extra cash to try and hit the jackpot once more. The critics point to these stories as the evils of the casino market and even though the operation is tightly controlled they still point to the effects the casino has had on the area outside of Kangwon Land's walls.

In the surrounding areas the main businesses that have sprouted up and do steady business are motels, pawnshops and private loan companies. Neon lights flashing all night hoping to catch a gambler down on his luck. It's not just legitimate businesses that ply their trade but also inevitably loan sharks hover around, waiting to profit from another's woe.

Despite all the negativity business is booming. Foreign investors would jump at the chance to get into the market if the South Korean government opens up the nation to allow more casino's open for Koreans. While a law from 1995 grants exclusivity to Kangwon Land there is no doubt the facility is a money spinner. State-owned it could expand or even Korea could look at placing more casinos in free economic zones and rake in the money. All of these ideas come at a cost. With a presidential election in the offing no major decision will be made just yet but the discussion will be fast approaching of whether the lure of larger or extra casinos is too hard to resist.