Jockeying for cash: North Korea allows
racetrack gambling as sanctions bite
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[October 16, 2017]
By Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL (Reuters) - Punters in North Korea
who once risked three years hard labor for gambling are now able to bet
on local horse races as the isolated country scrambles to unearth new
sources of hard currency amid intensifying international sanctions.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been building resorts, swimming
pools and other luxurious leisure facilities in what experts say is a
bid to capture some of the individual wealth generated by growing
private markets for goods and services.
A series of races took place at the Mirim Horse Riding Club, one of
Kim's flagship leisure developments, near Pyongyang on Sunday, according
to North Korea's official KCNA news agency.
Race goers aged 12 or older were allowed to bet on jockeys in a
raffle-type system, broadcaster Korean Central Television said on Friday
ahead of the races.
Pictures from KCNA showed hundreds of spectators watching and filming
with their phones as a field of mostly white-grey horses and their
riders stormed out of the starting gate.
In the communist North, horses - especially white ones - have
traditionally been a propaganda symbol associated with the ruling Kim
"Kim has been pushing for vanity projects for a theme park, sky resort
and the horse riding club for the sake of propping up the people's
well-being but their real purpose was to earn foreign currency," said Na
Jeong-won, head of the North Korea Industry-Economy Research Institute
North Korea's access to foreign currency has been impacted by a series
of international sanctions over its nuclear weapons program, including
bans on key exports such as coal, textiles and seafood.
Lee Sang-keun, a researcher at the Institute of Unification Studies of
Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said the primary target for the leisure
facilities is affluent North Koreans.
"You may have ridiculed Kim Jong Un for constructing lavish facilities
while struggling to feed the people, but those things are to make
foreign currency, not from foreigners but from the well-offs inside
North Korea because you have to pay in U.S. dollars or Chinese renminbi
there," said Lee.
"Many North Koreans make lots of money from the market, dine at
hamburger restaurants and go shopping, all of which help fatten regime
coffers. Thatís part of the reason why the regime still has some
financial latitude despite international sanctions."
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People take part in a horse riding game at the Mirim Equestrian
Riding Club in Pyongyang, North Korea October 15, 2017, in this
picture released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA)
in Pyongyang. KCNA/via REUTERS
North Korea has already been operating casinos for foreigners in
Pyongyang and Rason, where it jointly runs a special economic zone
Last March, the government sent out investment proposals for new
casinos in Namyang, near the border of China, and the Mount Kumkang
region, home to a scenic tourist resort just north of the border
with South Korea. The United Nations' latest round of sanctions,
however, bans any further joint ventures with North Korean
Third generation leader Kim developed the Mirim riding club by
transforming a military horseman training center in 2012 and visited
the site several times until its formal unveiling a year later, KCNA
The Mirim riding club has an indoor training facility, seven outdoor
riding courses, a pavilion, restaurants and a sauna, as well as 120
horses including 67 famous Orlov Trotters from Russia, according to
the website of Uri Tours, a U.S.-based agency specialized in guided
trips through the North.
The entrance fee is $35, which covers one-hour of horse riding with
an instructor, riding gear and sauna.
The fee could be lower for North Koreans, reportedly at around $10 -
still a hefty sum for many impoverished locals.
"There seems to be growing demand for such leisure activities among
North Koreans as the gap between the rich and the poor has been
widening," said Na.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Lincoln
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