[Viewpoint] High-stakes gamble for Yeonpyeong

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[Viewpoint] High-stakes gamble for Yeonpyeong

The National Assembly passed special legislation on reconstruction and fortification of five frontline islands, including Yeonpyeong Island, which suffered casualties and widescale destruction from North Korea’s deadly artillery attack last Tuesday.

Residents of Yeonpyeong who suffered losses from the North Korean attack will be compensated for property damage and given education and income subsidies. It is the least the state can do for their losses in the wake of the surprise bombardment and the feeble military counterattack from the South. The ruling and opposition parties in rare bipartisan coordination trotted out various ideas to help and fortify the frontline islands. One was a plan to invest billions of won to turn the five islands into a fully armed military zone.

But can the fishing island ever return to business as usual? Let’s be creative for a change. How about licensing casino facilities on the islands?

Casinos can be multifunctional. They can attract tourists — especially the Chinese. However bold and temperamental Kim Jong-il may be, he would not dream of shelling an island crowded with Chinese nationals. Kim may kill his own people without losing any sleep, but he would not dare kill Chinese nationals.

When North Korea blew up a South Korean naval ship and killed a South Korean tourist, it did not apologize. But when North Korean security guards shot three Chinese smugglers near the border in early June, Pyongyang immediately apologized to Beijing. Pyongyang even sent a delegation to China to apologize for the shooting in person, carrying compensations of $30 million per each death — despite its measly financial state. It vowed that it would severely punish those involved so that such an accident would never recur.

Let’s presume Kim Jong-un is audacious enough to fire at an island hosting Chinese tourists. Beijing won’t likely call for “restraint and calmness” and “dialogue,” would it? Beijing would likely hit the ceiling and wouldn’t be satisfied with assurances and compensation. It would put its foot on North Korea’s throat until Pyongyang begged for its life. We have seen the cruel side of Beijing when it confronted Tokyo after Chinese fishermen were arrested amid a territorial dispute in the East China Sea.

Let us suppose that authorities give this bizarre idea a thought. Will Chinese tourists venture to come? With the right marketing and infrastructure, it is feasible. The Chinese love to gamble. Macao surpassed Las Vegas to become the world’s most popular gambling destination. The island houses 33 casinos, generating growth of more than 20 percent a year over the last decade. The five islands in the Yellow Sea are closer to Beijing and Shanghai than Macao.

The islands can be designated special tourism zones, waiving visas for Chinese tourists. The casinos can be equipped with baccarat tables, of which the Chinese are especially fond, with high stakes at hand. Even if the Chinese leave with fat pockets, let’s consider the losses as part of defense spending. Tourists can come on luxury ferries on direct sea routes from the Chinese mainland. Of course, there would be special ferries from Incheon International Airport.

Security for Chinese tourists would be impeccable. First, the five islands should be fortified with howitzers, guided missiles and aircraft. The casino facilities should be extravagantly strong and built underground for safety.

Second, locals should be allowed into the gambling site so that Chinese visitors won’t be alarmed and suspicious of security risks. We would need to change the law that limits gambling for locals to Kangwon Land. The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism opposes local residents’ access to any other casinos, but the Yellow Sea islands should be excepted.

The establishment of casinos has other merits. They would draw foreign capital. The number of Chinese tourists to the country is expected to exceed 3 million next year. There is no reason that visitors to the island casinos couldn’t reach 30,000, even if only 1 percent of total Chinese tourists arrive. Over 220 casinos in Asia employ about 1,300 staff per facility. Some resort casinos in North America hire over 40,000.

The lives of the five isolated islands would be richer. The casinos should be encouraged to hire island residents and purchase food supplies from the area. It would be a win-win situation for all.

*The writer is the business editor of the JoongAng Sunday.

By Yi Jung-jae
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