Life’s a lottery: when you win big, you loseThe odds of winning a lottery by correctly picking six numbers selected at random from 45 are about 8 million to one.
In other words, players are more likely to be struck by lightning while being taken to the hospital for treatment for having been struck by an earlier bolt of lightning than to win the nation’s richest game of chance ― Lotto.
But despite the odds ― as well as criticism that state lotteries, such as Lotto, are just another form of gambling ― nearly everyone in Korea buys lottery tickets each week, clinging to the slim hope they may finally strike it rich (as opposed to being struck by lightning).
Last April, a 40-year-old former police officer, Park Woon-sung (not his real name), became arguably the luckiest person in Korea after winning 40.7 billion won ($33 million), the largest Lotto jackpot in the game’s short history (it was launched in Korea last December).
Three months have passed since Mr. Park became the envy of every Korean, but rumors have continued to abound.
Did Mr. Park move to Seoul from his home in Gangwon province? Did he emigrate to the United States or Australia?
More pressing, what was it like for Korea’s “40-billion-won man” to become one the country’s richest people overnight?
Answers to these questions might even settle the question of whether money is really the root of all evil or the ultimate doorway to happiness.
Conversations with Mr. Park and his younger brother, Park Woon-jae, 37, (again, not his real name), make it obvious that the power of money was beyond their expectations ― but that’s not all good.
Mr. Park’s losses have proved to be as great as his winnings. Since April he has suffered anxiety attacks and had to cut himself off from friends and family. He no longer spends nights eating grilled pork and drinking soju with his buddies.
Money simply wasn’t everything.
After a week of investigation and some persuasion, the Joong Ang Ilbo was finally able to meet Park Woon-jae, 37, (at his request, we agreed to use pseudonyms). But even meeting the younger brother of the man who landed Korea’s richest lottery ― the 40.7 billion won Lotto jackpot drawn April 12 ― was not an easy task.
A Gangwon provincial police officer, Mr. Park made sure that the meeting would take place on his own terms. Needless to say, he received permission from his elder brother, Park Woon-sung, 40, before the meeting was set up.
Before winning the lottery, both brothers were law enforcement officers (the younger Mr. Park has remained with the force while his elder brother quit shortly after winning). On the day Park Woon-sung went to the Seoul headquarters of Kookmin Bank to collect his prize, his younger brother escorted him. Although almost three months have passed since that day, both brothers are still constantly on guard.
During initial attempts to contact him, Park Woon-sung said he did not want any media exposure. Shortly afterward, he traveled overseas with his wife ― one of the many trips they have taken since winning the lottery. He returned Monday and finally agreed to a short interview over the phone.
“After some time has passed, I will try to figure out a way to spend the money for needy people,” he said. “Instead of working with the people who call me up all the time, I think I’m going to visit needy people directly.” Mr. Park has already spent 3.2 billion won on charitable causes, such as establishing a scholarship at his children’s previous elementary school.
Mr. Park said he felt sorry for his younger brother and mother who have had to go through all the ballyhoo surrounding his lottery win. Likewise, on the first day of the interview with Park Woon-jae at a small coffee shop in northeast Gangwon city ― the brothers’ home town ―the police officer simply looked at the newspaper photographer, sighed and mumbled to himself, “And I thought the interest in us had finally calmed down.”
After this initial meeting, the JoongAng Ilbo met with Mr. Park on two more occasions (as well as talking to him over the phone several times), to learn of the extraordinary experience the whole Park family has endured since suddenly becoming so wealthy. He still remembered vividly the day their life changed forever.
“It was early Sunday morning when suddenly the phone rang,” he explained. “My brother only told me to come to his house immediately. I told him I was scheduled to go to a birthday party that day, but he kept telling me to come over.”
Sensing something in the air, Mr. Park hurried to his elder brother’s house. The moment he opened the door, he knew something had happened. All his relatives, including their mother who lives in Hong-cheon, Gangwon province, were present.
“My brother just showed me a Lotto ticket,” Mr. Park said. “At the time, nobody was really excited. Everyone was actually sort of calm. But then it hit us after a couple of hours that something huge had just happened to us.” Mr. Park remembered that on that particular day the whole family could not sleep at all.
The next day, the family started to worry that if the news got out about the huge win, trouble would surely arrive soon after. Hence, the family decided that both brothers would go to work and follow their normal routine.
Two more days passed until the brothers finally decided to collect the winnings. “Inside the car, my brother hardly spoke a word,” said Mr. Park. “I think he was nervous that they might tell him his numbers weren’t the right ones.”
Nevertheless, the moment the brothers saw with their own eyes the amount of money in Park Woon-sung’s passbook, it started to dawn in their heads that it was all true.
“The first line in the passbook had the numbers ‘317’ followed by eight zeros. It was the winning amount after taxes. Finally, my brother started to smile. I felt the tension going away as well,” Mr. Park said.
Shortly afterward, Park Woon-sung quit his job. “It is true that my brother sent another, lower-ranked officer to buy some Lotto tickets. But the rumors that he had given hundreds of millions of won to that officer are not true. I think my brother is thinking about him and how to show a little appreciation.”
So were there any signs prior to the win that hinted such a life-changing event was looming? “Nope,” replied Mr. Park. “There was nothing. None of our family members had any sort of unusual dream or signs indicating that something might be happening.”
As to how the family had spent the money so far, Mr. Park simply shook his head: “We haven’t really spent money like water, as they say. Once we went to a Japanese restaurant and the bill came out at around 300,000 won. I think that was the most expensive meal that our family had ever had.”
They also went out for drinks to celebrate, sometimes spending 600,000 won at a time. “When you think that only after a month of hard work with one day’s rest do I bring home 2 million won, it’s hard to understand how normal people can afford to go to such places.”
Right after collecting the money, Park Woon-sung, his wife and two children took off for a trip to New Zealand where they stayed for about 20 days. While there, Mr. Park would call his younger brother in Korea and ask him whether the attention had died down somewhat. “His voice sounded tired and not very happy,” the younger Mr. Park said. “He kept asking me whether it was O.K. to come back.”
According to his brother, after Park Woon-sung returned to Korea from his trip, life started to change immediately. First, he moved from the apartment he had been living in for 20 years. “My brother wanted to live here where all our relatives are,” Park Woon-jae explained. “But all the hoopla made that impossible.”
Park Woon-sung is said to have bought a luxury apartment in Seoul where security is tight. “He calls me from time to time and tells me how he misses seeing people. In the past, he would go out for a drink with his friends, but nowadays everything has changed. When he calls up people that he thought were his friends, many talk about money first.”
Needless to say, the whole family had to change their phone numbers as literally hundred of calls poured in. The mother of the two brothers had to be moved to the younger brother’s house because strangers kept appearing at hers.
Daily life for the younger brother has undergone a change just as his brother’s has. “When I walk down the street, I can’t have a normal conversation with my neighbors anymore. They ask me when will I move to a new house or when will I change my car.”
Park Woon-jae said he had no plans in the near future to leave his post. His elder brother quit his job right before taking the exam to advance to police lieutenant, but Mr. Park said he planned to remain at his job until retirement.
“To become a police lieutenant is every police officer’s dream. It’s kind of sad that my brother quit his job,” said the younger Mr. Park, who added that he still buys Lotto tickets.
Park Woon-sung has decided to leave the country, according to his younger brother, because even his children have become the subject of scrutiny. At the elementary school in Seoul where they have just transferred, classmates know about the jackpot, although how they learned is still unknown. “My brother has decided to put them in a school abroad. I think they are going to stay there for a while,” Mr. Park said.
Winning the lottery brought material happiness to the Park family, but it also complicated their lives beyond their imaginations.
Bigger is not always better when it comes to jackpots
Is lottery-winning happiness in direct proportion to jackpot wealth? Apparently not, according to the lottery team of Kookmin Bank, which runs the Lotto.
The lottery team says those who win prizes worth 1 billion won ($844,808) or less are generally happier than those who win more.
One of the reasons is that the bigger the amount, the larger the instinct is to protect it, according to the lottery team.
In that respect, winners of more than 1 billion won are more likely to be afraid of revealing their identities to others.
In one incident, according to the lottery team, a jackpot winner arrived at the bank to collect his prize with hired bodyguards.
By contrast, minor prize-winners were more relaxed and usually joked about winning the top prize next time.
“When people hit the jackpot in other countries, the entire neighborhood rejoices and congratulates the lucky person,” said Lee In-young, in charge of Kookmin Bank’s lottery team. “But here in Korea, those who win usually have to hide since few people are happy to see someone else finally getting a break.”
According to the lottery team, winners usually collect their prizes at the bank accompanied by someone else; usually their spouse, siblings or parents.
Only in one case did a winner arrive alone. He was in his 60s, according to the lottery team, and said he came without telling his wife to prevent her from spending it all.
Mr. Lee stressed that most lottery winners did not spend indiscriminately.
“According to a study overseas, 97 percent of lottery winners have improved their living standards, whereas only 3 percent have made their lives more miserable than the life they had before,” he said.
Mr. Lee added that most winners were usually careful and rational in spending their jackpots.
“There was a lottery winner who left all of his jackpot in the bank,” Mr. Lee said.
Many donate their money to charity. Mr. Lee recalled one person who won a jackpot of 9.4 billion won and then donated 1 billion won of it.
“I told him to discuss it with his family,” said Mr. Lee, “but after few days he came up and said he wanted to donate it and passed two 500-million-won checks.
Until now, 4.2 billion won has been donated to charity by Lotto winners.
by Pyo Jae-yong, Lee Kyong-hee