Play by the book

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Play by the book

There is a belief that genes play a role in addiction to gambling. I was not born with such an addiction. Inevitably I lose whenever I join a game of cards. Possibly I’m cursed with a loser’s gene when it comes to gambling. Whenever I have to join a game of poker with friends during a holiday break in my hometown, I’m forced to set a limit on how much I can afford to lose. And I will lose every penny of that limit.

I know my weakness. I simply don’t have a poker face. I cannot hold onto a pair of aces without giving it away with an excited blush on my face or impatient fidgeting. Impatient to finally win, of course.

I visited a casino in Las Vegas many years ago during a trip to the United States. I immediately left the place after losing $50. I have been to Kangwon Land, the only casino that is permitted to allow Korean nationals to gamble, way out in Gangwon province. I couldn’t help but notice several people with hollow and desperate eyes. They must have been addicts who couldn’t get out of the area after losing everything. There were numerous pawn shops, inns and ‘round-the-clock saunas nearby to cater to them.

Authorities are about to approve a license for a foreigners-only casino on Yeongjong Island, some 50 kilometers (31 miles) west of Seoul, home to the Incheon International Airport. The plan finally came into being when the administration of President Lee Myung-bak proclaimed the area an economic free zone last September.

The act includes easing of strict regulations in the licensing of the casino business. A casino usually requires an initial investment pledge of $300 million followed by another $200 million. But the new regulation authorize licensing with an initial investment of merely $50 million, making it the easiest and cheapest place to open a casino. President Lee demanded the easing of regulations to draw investors and people into the new economic free district that had turned into a ghost town amid a real estate slump and poor business. Incheon has been lobbying for a casino for a long time.

The issue bounced between the ministries of trade and industry, and culture and tourism for more than a half-year. The Trade Ministry wanted to fast-track the license while the Culture Ministry, which has authority over casino licensing, dragged its feet to study the social implications. Former Culture Minister Choe Kwang-shik recalled that the casino business had been a desperate choice by the Ministry of Knowledge Economy (now the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy) to promote the economic free zone, but the culture ministry wished to cover all the bases considering ambivalent public sentiment about gambling.

Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Yoo Jin-ryong recently said the casino would be approved within the month. A team comprised of government officials and tourism and business experts went into a three-day extensive preliminary review conference. Two have bid for the business. Caesars Entertainment of the U.S. has teamed up with Hong Kong-listed investment group Lippo to vie with Universal Entertainment of Japan. The government will now have to award the business to a winner.

Gambling has traditionally been regarded negatively here. But a casino business can do a lot for the economy. It is a kind of a necessary evil. The casino is a resort business on steroids, including a five-star hotel, convention center, shopping mall and entertainment area. It can reinvigorate business and jobs. Various Asian cities are envisioning similar success to that enjoyed by Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, a luxury hotel that opened in 2010 with a casino.

In the longer run, the government will have to study opening casinos to locals as well as foreigners to capture some of the money flowing into Macao or Singapore and curb the unauthorized underground gambling industry. Kangwon Land’s exclusive contract on the casino business of locals ends in 2025. Many are welcoming and paying attention to the casino in Incheon on expectations that eventually Koreans will also have access to legalized gambling.

Multinational resort companies like Sands and MGM are waiting to enter Korea when locals are finally allowed to gamble. But authorities must come up with protections against the unwanted side effects of gambling. The policy should be drawn up with farsightedness and in great detail.

It must go through public debate and parliamentary review. The recent licensing procedures and foreign bids raised questions and controversy because the entire process followed a government announcement without prior opinion polling. The National Assembly should get involved, especially with the procedure called a preliminary review system comprised of a team of so-called experts. To avoid controversy, it’s best to go by the book.

* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Noh Jae-hyun
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