Poker in Pyongyang: Life and death in North Korea’s casinos

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This originally appeared in NK News.

Foreign employee’s death raises questions about ownership of country’s gambling industry

He jumped to his death – at least that’s what the authorities say.

Casino worker Lei Weng Fu, 29, died on June 5 in North Korea, his cause of death attributed as “multiple bone fractures” by the Pyongyang hospital which conducted the autopsy.

His family doesn’t believe them – they believe he might have been pushed. Nobody’s quite sure how it happened.

A citizen of Macau, Lei worked in Casino Pyongyang, in the bowels of the capital’s famous Yanggakdo Hotel. He was saving up to buy a noodle restaurant in his hometown and was, according to his family, happy with his job and his life.

But then everything seemed to change, almost overnight. On May 31, his family said, they received a WeChat message from Lei telling them he was being threatened because of money troubles, and that a shareholder in the casino was threatening to freeze his bank accounts if he didn’t pay up.

The next day, he had more bad news: He had been fired for stealing casino chips.

That was the last time his family heard from him. Five days later, his parents were called by his manager at the casino: Lei was on his way home. Just a few hours later, however, he was dead.

ROLLING THE DICE

It’s odd to believe that there are even casinos, and casino workers, in North Korea, a place where frivolous fun for the sake of it is generally frowned upon. But that’s because for the actual citizens of the country, there aren’t: Locals are not allowed in. This is not unheard of in East Asia – even South Korea has many resorts where only foreigners can gamble.

“(Gambling is) not legal and to be honest it isn’t something I see people doing while there,” said Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours. “It is common to see groups of men playing cards in parks and around the place, or playing Changgi and other games, but unlike in China (where it is common to see people playing games for money – usually hiding the money though) I’ve never actually seen anyone gambling at these games, more of a way to pass the time.”

North Korea only has two casinos, as far as we know. The first is where Lei worked, in the capital and, as Pyongyang’s only gambling facility, probably the most commonly visited by tourists from the west – although the clientele are still overwhelmingly Chinese. The facilities are fairly standard: two blackjack tables, one for Baccarat (frequented, according to Cockerell, by the “higher rollers”), and a table for the Chinese game of luck Big/Small – very similar to roulette.

“I did visit the casino one night,” writes one Tripadvisor user, in a review of a stay at the hotel which involved a night of gambling. “(It was) all Chinese dealers, cashiers and pit bosses, no locals allowed in, whether as players or employees.”

“I won $130 at blackjack, playing with a bunch (of) rowdy Mongolians. Who’d a thunk?”

Casino Pyongyang uses an unusual system of payment, selling casino dollars for $1.5, and is staffed entirely by foreigners: with the more senior staff hailing from Macau and the more low-level employees, such as dealers and money-changers, coming from the border city of Dandong, China. In general, most are “very friendly and chatty”, according to Cockerell, and the operating language of the establishment is Chinese – North Koreans aren’t even allowed in.

“I would say this is simply the best place to learn how to play blackjack as they play slowly, are happy to advise on what to do, and the stakes are low,” he said. “They do not serve alcohol in the casino, they serve free tea, they allow smoking, they sell soft drinks (Coke, Sprite) but no booze, you can’t even take it in there.”

North Korea’s second casino lies on the other side of the country, in Rason, in the northeast, where the borders of the DPRK, Russia and China meet. Part of the Empire Hotel, it opened back in 1999 to much fanfare as one of the very first casinos in the country. Unsurprisingly, given its location, the clientele is overwhelming Chinese – and tailors to a significantly more high-rolling crowd than Casino Pyongyang.

“Last time I was there they were asking for a $500 bond to enter the gaming area,” said Cockerell. “Basically you had to buy $500 of chips to go in, to prove you were capitalized enough (remember it is a cash economy, you must have this money on you at the time).”

It’s this ethos which sets gambling in the DPRK apart from the pastime in other countries. While, of course, gambling is always about the casino making money, the emphasis in North Korea is firmly on raking in hard currency for the state.

It’s about serious gambling, not about having fun,” said Gareth Johnson of Young Pioneer Tours, which has recently added a casino tour to its portfolio of tours to the country.

“(The casinos are) much smaller, fewer games, almost all players are from the same place (China) and no booze,” said Cockerell. “Not as much fun for the casual gambler as most other places.”

This has caused the casino trouble in the past, such as with the high-profile case of a Chinese official “blowing public money there and then going on the lam,” resulting in it having to close “for a few years,” Cockerell said. There’s also a third, sporadically open casino in Sinuiju, in the west of the country, the site of one of the many official Kim Jong Il residences, Johnson said.

THE HIGH ROLLER

So who bears responsibility for the death of Lei? And what does his untimely death reveal about the lives of North Korea’s foreign casino workers?

Unlike almost everything else in the DPRK, the country’s casinos are not owned by the state. They are privately owned and operated, each by a separate conglomerate from Macau and Hong Kong. Casino Pyongyang is a property of the Sociedade de Jogos de Macau (SJM), or the Society of Traveling and Entertainment of Macau Limited. As a result, Lei was an employee of one of the city-state’s richest men: Stanley Ho.

Stanley Ho, once called the “King of Gambling” due to his massive wealth, facilitated by a government-granted and protected monopoly on the past time in Hong Kong and Macau, is worth close to $2 billion. Over the decades, he’s built a powerful commercial empire in a region where family-run conglomerates thrive. Gambling is big money in Macau – making up close to 50 percent of the country’s economy – and Ho’s business interests, and alleged connections to organized crime, have made him an enigmatic, and powerful, figure in the city-state’s complex corporate politics.

Ho and North Korea have a relationship going way back. The Korean War was an early source of revenue for him, according to American journalist Ron Gluckman, who writes that he “made his fortune as a gunrunner to North Korea” in the 1950s. Ho’s been described as “controlling” the DPRK’s gambling industry and enjoying a “cosy relationship” with the leadership – friendships which have made him a target, reportedly, for conversion to FBI informant and an unusual conduit for communications between North Korea’s leaders and the outside world.

He opened what was reported to be the first public casino in the country, at the Yanggakdo, at the turn of the century and, save for a period in the aftermath of Kim Jong Il’s death, it’s been open ever since. Since then, according to Bloomberg in 2011, he’s invested some $30 million into it – but has rarely spoken publicly about his business interests in the DPRK.

CRAZY STORIES

But if anyone knows the truth about Lei’s death, it’s SJM’s office at Pyongyang. They claim that he had been diagnosed with an unspecified mental health problem during his time in the capital. According to his family, and was stealing chips from his place of work. When his theft was discovered, SJM say, he killed himself. His family, on the other hand, argue that he was never tested officially for any mental health problem, but that the diagnosis was based on rumors spread by malicious co-workers. The official autopsy, issued by a Pyongyang hospital, states that he died of multiple bone fractures.

In the weeks after his death, Lei’s family received a letter from SJM’s legal team requesting they sign a document allowing for his cremation in North Korea. They refused, instead hopping on the plane to the DPRK to investigate for themselves.

“We got there and our mobiles and passports were retained,” his mother told her local newspaper Hoje Macau – often standard practice when visiting North Korea. “We couldn’t go where we wanted and we couldn’t talk with his (Lei’s) colleagues or retrieve his possessions that disappeared.”

Lei’s family were then handed a bill to bring his body home: MOP60,000 ($7,515.97) – money the financially strapped group could ill afford, and they have strongly suggested that SJM offered to reduce the fee if they kept quiet. Desperate to avoid the hefty charge and garner public support for their cause, they took their case to opposition Macau lawmaker Pereira Coutinho, who has a background in activism and campaigning. Coutihno brought the case to fellow parliamentarian – and managing director of SJM – Angela Leong, and the bill was paid, although it’s not clear by whom.

“It is a case of human dignity, involving a local resident who was working for SJM,” he told press back in July. “The operator should assume the costs. The body is in Macau now and the family can bury the young man.”

But the truth behind Lei’s death is far from over. His body returned home, but come September, a month after his demise, his family had still not learned the results of the second autopsy. The authorities broke their silence in October, with Macau Secretariat of State Wong Sio Chak telling the press that while the examination was not yet complete, and that it was “difficult to follow on the investigation.”

“We’re still awaiting more news from there,” he said. “However, the information we received suggests nothing suspicious.”

It’s not as simple as all that, however.  Pereira Coutinho, the MP who’s taken on the case of Lei’s family, said the doctors working on the case argued that the lesions on the body suggest that he “could possibly have been subject to beatings before falling.”

The case is ongoing.

In many ways, it’s perfectly possible that Lei jumped to his death desperate, unhappy and far from home and proper psychiatric care. But his untimely demise, as well as the frustrating obfuscation around the case, leaves many questions unanswered about the relationship between SJM and the North Korean state, the welfare of their workers, and whether an internationally operated company with a reputation to maintain should be doing business in the DPRK.

Whether they’ll ever be answered, of course, remains to be seen.

SJM Holdings and its representatives did not respond to requests for comment by NK News.

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