[VIEWPOINT]Betting games must be regulated“Goju” is a Korean word with Chinese characters that means “all-in on a bet.” The Korean dictionary defines “goju” as “to bet everything a gambler has left at once in a final round.” However, the dictionary definition fails to fully deliver the real taste of the word. The Chinese characters contain the implication that betting everything left is a lonely and difficult decision. Thus, all-in is the last resort when there is no other alternative.
However, a strange thing is happening. All over the country, insensible “all-in” bets are made every night.
When the huge signboards of “Ocean Story,” which reminded me of a seafood chain, sprang up here and there, I secretly doubted the business potential of the betting game arcades because there were just too many of them. However, it turned out to be the unnecessary concern of an ordinary man with little flair for investment. You can find more “Ocean Story” arcades than laundries or billiard rooms, and each one is packed with customers. I was so curious what they offer there, that I decided to make a visit.
Korea, indeed, is an IT power. Simple slot machines have been drastically upgraded. Underwater scenes displayed on a big screen suddenly are filled with darkness, a prelude to something big coming. When a shark appears and swims across the screen, the pictures of fish rolling at the bottom of the screen start to pair up. The player wins a prize based on how much is bet, from several times up to tens of times the amount. The gamblers are waiting for a whale. When the whale slowly swims across the screen, the player can win a jackpot. While I have not witnessed one, a jackpot returns up to 250 times the amount of money played. The problem is that the night falls on the screen only when you are about to run out of money. You might make your mind up to stop, only to be tempted to put a bill into the machine again. We often say history is made at night. In consideration for the exhausted customers, the machines can kindly run with just a disposable lighter on top of the button. Thanks to this technological advance, 140 machines were running without a pause in front of the customers’ deadpan faces.
It is hard to understand why such an obvious gambling machine has been permitted. I smelled something fishy. Here is where former vice minister for culture Yoo Jin-ryong comes in. Mr. Yoo rose to stardom when it was learned that he was dismissed because he refused to surrender to pressure from the Blue House to influence a personnel nomination. He claimed that he repeatedly requested the Korea Media Rating Board, which has the power to approve the games, to decline the “Ocean Story” machines, but he was told not to interfere. In the end, the “Ocean Story” machines spread around the country.
It’s comical that cultural gift certificates are given out as prizes. Buying a book or watching a play with a gift certificate won by gambling? I have seen a man leaving the gambling house, so happy to have won some 300 gift certificates. Did his smile come from the joy of being able to read books for the next 10 years for free? No matter what the motive, the naive inspiration of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism to allow cultural gift certificates as prizes made the once illegal transaction so easy, consequently boosting the adult-only game arcades.
Since August 2005, 22 trillion won ($23 billion) worth of cultural gift certificates have been issued. The amount matches the national defense budget this year.
While the authorities are belatedly making a fuss about banning the game and regulating the industry, it is a tough challenge to extinguish the gambling boom that has spread all over the back alleys of towns around the country. Gambling goes way back in the history of mankind. When Jesus was crucified, the Roman soldiers played dice and split the clothes Jesus had been wearing among them.
It is best if gambling disappears altogether. But if that is not possible, the next best thing is to drag it out in the sunlight. The pachinko industry in Japan could be a good example. Pachinko no longer symbolizes the dark money linked to yakuza. For instance, Maruhon, the leader of the industry, processes the betting amount in real time by implanting a special chip in every machine. Even the tax collecting authorities are impressed by the operation. Of course, manipulating the winning odds is impossible. Based on the transparent operation, Maruhon is working to be listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Since there is no room for “dark money” to get involved, the criminal syndicates are not attracted to the industry much.
In the last 10 years, the Japanese pachinko industry has been constantly expanding in revenue, number of stores and number of patrons.
The Japanese pachinko industry has set an inspiring precedent. When the damp, dark gambling is put under the sunlight, it turns into entertainment.
* The writer is the head of the JoongAng Ilbo’s weekend news team.
by Lee Hoon-beom