The chances of it happening are probably less than zero, but what would a legal casino in North Korea look like, and what would it mean for the country and the region at large?
Casino growth in Europe and North America is maxed out. New developments are sprouting up, but demand is static. Industry insiders know that Asia is the market to bet on. Economies from Mongolia to the Philippines are growing and locals have more disposable income than ever before. Couple that with a cultural inclination toward gambling in many Asian countries, and it is no wonder why the continent is the world leader in gambling revenue growth.
Despite all of the optimism, the industry is hampered by the lack of legal options. Japanese gambling laws prohibit casinos, China’s only establishments lie in the southern city of Macau, and South Korea allows the activity solely in a special economic zone. Given that the triangle of northern China, South Korea and Japan is the economic core of the Asia-Pacific region, a nearby casino hub could do wonders. So we cooked up a brilliant scheme. Build a resort casino in the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, also known as North Korea.
What would it look like?
However improbable, a casino in arguably the world’s most closed society would be a site to behold. One can imagine it being a given a flashy name like: The People’s Democratic House of Communal Leisure and Glorious Recreation. It will be a gargantuan temple of steel and concrete in the most severe version of socialist realism.
Resort casinos are gargantuan by definition, but this one will be a whole different animal. In a homage to Moscow’s failed Palace of Soviets project which was to feature a giant statue of Lenin on top, the house of communal leisure will feature a larger-than-life Kim-Il Sung, the founder of the North Korean state.
The interior of the casino
The house of communal leisure will feature no sexy croupiers or cocktail waitresses. The casino floor and wait staff with be dressed in military uniforms, reflecting the ongoing struggle against class enemies and the western imperialists. But as the casino will be serving high-profile foreign guests, only the best food and drink will be served. Dennis Rodman said this about First Secretary Kim Jong-Un: “If you drink a bottle of tequila, it’s the best tequila. Everything you want, he has the best.”
As for table games, we won’t see expressions of bourgeois decadence like blackjack and Texas Hold’Em. Rather, we will see proletarianized versions of these games. North Korean poker rooms will feature “People’s Poker” alongside “Red Star Roulette.” Rather than ordinary face cards with the Jack, Queen, King and Ace, this casino will use cards featuring the images of current First Secretary Kim Jong-un and his father Kim Jong-Il and grandfather Kim Il-Sung.
In the People’s Democratic Republic even luxury feels austere. The hotel rooms will be small and spare, even if they are catering to wealthy foreigners. Each morning visitors will wake up to meet a large portrait of Kim Il-Sung.
What it would mean for North Korea
Not that we expect such an establishment to open anytime soon, but if so it would bring in much-needed foreign currency, potentially transforming the country’s economy. Expect foreign tourists to come for the kitsch and one-in-a-lifetime experience of gambling in the world’s most tightly regulated economy. Maybe it wouldn’t be interesting to people in Asia who have lived in command economies, but tourists from capitalist countries go wild over that stuff.
While steps would be taken to prevent visitors from interacting with the locals, serving foreign tourists would inevitably entail a relative opening of the country. The cases of the USSR and the People’s Republic of China show that once the process of opening starts, it tends have a snowball effect, making changes difficult to reverse. The process would first transform North Korea’s economy and eventually its political culture.
What it would mean for the region
As North Korea gradually opens to foreign influence, it is almost inevitable that cross-border ties with its estranged brother state South Korea will deepen. To take an optimistic perspective, it could put the peninsula on a path toward reunification, which is the long-term goal of South Korea and most of the international community.
This would represent a victory for the Western liberal model and lead to an easing of political and military tensions in the region. Dare we say that legalized gambling in North Korea could put the Asia-Pacific region on the path to lasting peace? We’d be shocked if Kim Jong-Un’s regime actually did such a thing, but stranger things have happened. Hey, they have made Dennis Rodman their international poster boy.