Gambling in SK: Celebrity scandals and Korean laws

Discussion of illegal gambling in Korea has spread all over the international K-pop scene after the trials of six high profile celebrities were announced. Shinhwa’s Andy, first wave idol group H.O.T’s Tony Ahn, MCs Boom, and Tak Jae Hoon and comedians Lee Soo Geun and Yang Sae Hyang were all charged with illegal sports betting with bets totalling hundreds of billions of won between them. The trial has been making the news again and again after allegations of police bribery, ridiculous appeals and apology after apology. However many witnessing the events from outside Korea might have been left confused without an understanding of South Korea’s gambling laws. So today we’re here to help you out with a short guide to gambling in Korea. We’ll be looking at what is and is not allowed and how it is viewed by the public.

Slot machines at Gangwon Land

Slot machines at Gangwon Land

Gambling in Korea is, for the most part, illegal. The few forms of gambling which are legal exist because they are seen to in some way promote either public welfare or some kind of industry, particularly tourism. Because of this, while there are seventeen casinos in Korea, only one of them, Gangwon Land, is open to Korean citizens. Gangwon Land is located on a fairly remote resort three hours from Seoul at the top of a mountain which, as you may have guessed, was put there to discourage Koreans from gambling on a regular basis. The other casinos are open only to foreigners permitted on the grounds that they bring tourists into the country and money into the economy.

Of course, the form of gambling that has been getting the most attention in the press lately, after a host of celebrity scandals, is online sports betting but where does that stand legally? Well, it’s essentially illegal. At least this is true of the type of fixed-odds betting done through a bookmaker which will be familiar to many of us from outside Korea. There is actually one legal sports betting website but it doesn’t function in the same way as a conventional online bookies.

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2002 World Cup was a huge moment in Korean sporting history

Sports Toto is a government-backed gambling business which provides opportunities to bet on Korean sports both online and in the same places where one can buy lottery tickets. This is allowed because the type of gambling means it can be classed as a lottery which are legal if they are government-approved. It was originally developed as a way to raise funding for the 2002 Japan and Korea World Cup and continues to invest some of its profits in Korean sport. They also run the related Sports Proto which is more similar standard fixed-odds betting but provides much smaller pay outs and lower odds than most international betting websites.

Some other forms of betting are legal in particular horse, boat and motorcycle racing. However just because they are legal doesn’t mean they are socially acceptable. Many Koreans hold a negative impression of horse racing punters. When an off-track betting centre in Seoul was scheduled to move to a new location, only 83 metres away, locals were outraged at the thought that patrons might have the opportunity to influence students from local schools. An emergency committee formed of local residents argued that the centre’s new location would “be a blight on an environment in which children attend schools”. Some believed that the centre would lead to an increase in adult businesses and even sex crimes in the area.

However just because other forms of gambling are illegal doesn’t mean they aren’t popular. The illegal gambling market was estimated at around 75 trillion won by the National Gambling Control Commission earlier this year. Most of this was illegal gambling in offline spots, on websites or in illegal casinos and betting centres.

Gamblers may choose to use international bookmakers like UK-based bet365

Gamblers may choose to use international bookmakers like UK-based bet365

Many gamblers choose to bypass government restrictions on foreign betting websites by using proxy servers based in other countries, such as Singapore, in order to make much larger bets on foreign sports leagues. This can be a quite complex procedure requiring setting up foreign money transfer accounts and credit cards. However the host of celebrities who have been caught taking part in this kind of gambling as a result of the government’s recent crackdown show that it is still a popular way to gamble.

Penalties for being caught gambling can be quite severe with fines of up to five million won and even worse for those who run illegal gambling places who could face up to three years in prison or an up to twenty million won fine.

According to figures from the Korea Sports Promotion Foundation, the number of illegal gambling websites in Korea has increased 25-fold in the last four years with many users now choosing to access through their smartphones. The allegations brought against this new round of high profile gamblers may be shocking to the Korean public and to K-pop fans but they are far from alone in their willingness to break the law in order to take part in illegal gambling. Gambling, after all, is all about taking risks.

What do you think? Do you agree with this approach to gambling or do you think the law should be changed? Let us know!