When luck runs out, some choose death

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When luck runs out, some choose death


Gamblers line up at a taxi stand at Kangwon Land’s basement level around 6 a.m. as the casino closes for a 4-hour break before reopening at 10 a.m. Over 100 taxis drive these customers across the country every day. [KIM JUN-YOUNG]

This is the second part of a three-part JoongAng Ilbo series on the “homeless gamblers” of Jeongseon, Gangwon, home to Kangwon Land, the country’s only casino that accepts Korean gamblers. Around 1,000 people who have subsequently moved near Kangwon Land are now living in poverty. Many borrow money or work menial jobs to support themselves. Suicides are not uncommon.

On March 16, a 37-year-old man surnamed Ahn was found dead after committing suicide in a hotel room near Kangwon Land, home of Korea’s only casino that accepts Korean gamblers. In his coat pocket was a note that read, “Sorry, I couldn’t escape gambling. So I am making this decision.” Ahn, who owned a construction business in South Jeolla, lost 2.5 billion won ($2.3 million) by gambling in the past year.

In 2016, government audits recorded 2,174 “compulsive customers,” or gamblers who visited Kangwon Land more than 100 times a year. One need only go down to the transport hubs in Jeongseon County, Gangwon, where Kangwon Land is located, to spot compulsive gamblers making their routine journey to the casino. Around 6 a.m. every morning, when Kangwon Land takes a 4-hour break, gamblers flood taxi stops and intercity bus terminals to return home.

Not a few of these compulsive gamblers end up choosing suicide to escape their problems. In 2016, 21 people committed suicide in Jeongseon. Although all these suicides were thought to involve people with gambling addictions, only one was officially registered as “suicide from gambling.”

If police do not find a note identifying gambling as the reason for a suicide, it cannot be categorized as such. Three weeks before Ahn took his own life, a 44-year-old man who had many times asked that he be barred from entering Kangwon Land was found dead in a nearby motel. But his death was not categorized as “suicide from gambling” because police did find a note to that effect.

For Jeongseon residents, it’s rare for a month to pass by without hearing about the suicide of a gambler, or a non-local who moves near Kangwon Land and becomes impoverished after gambling away his or her life’s savings.

“Is it still news if a person dies in Jeongseon?” one local pawnshop owner asked the JoongAng Ilbo. “In our neighborhood, we don’t really care if a non-local is found dead.”

“One man I befriended at the casino carried around pesticide for a while,” one 69-year-old said at Kangwon Land. “I haven’t seen him recently. He’s probably dead.”

These suicides have persuaded some Jeongseon residents to try to find the bodies of gamblers who take their own lives. In Jeongseon, building managers force doors open immediately when knocking fails to elicit a response from locked bathroom stalls or motel rooms. “There was a man who attempted suicide in our motel a few years ago,” one motel owner recounted. “We forced the door open because he had not come out for a long time, and we found him lying on the ground overdosed on medication.”

To prevent such suicides, gamblers are automatically barred or restricted from entry to Kangwon Land if they visit the casino more than 15 times a month for two months in a row. Family relatives can also request that the casino to restrict entry for gamblers, while the gamblers themselves may voluntarily ask the casino to bar them from entering. As of Nov. 29, 44,605 people are now restricted from entering Kangwon Land, 9,551 of them having been added only this year.

But underground casinos prey on those who are no longer welcome at Kangwon Land. Disguised as ordinary homes or offices, these establishments flourish around Kangwon Land, and their lack of regulation makes gambling especially dangerous.

“The gamblers initially take days off from work to go to the casino,” one gambling counsellor explained. “Eventually, they quit their jobs and try their luck in private casinos. That is the road to becoming a homeless gambler.”

BY HAN YOUNG-IK, KIM JUN-YOUNG AND HA JUN-HO [kim.eunjin1@joongang.co.kr]
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