Unlikely Winners: The Story of North Korea’s Failing Casino & Ski Resorts

Author Thomas Wolf
February 23, 2020 3 min read

When one thinks of the communist dictatorship of North Korea, glitzy gambling venues and smiling, money-spending tourists are not the first thing that comes to mind.

Indeed, most people around the world would be more likely to picture crippling poverty, expansive but eerily empty roads, and carefully staged mass performances.

However, in reality, the state’s authoritarian ruler Kim Jong Un has been pursuing a keen interest in bringing foreign gamblers (and their much-needed cash) into the country.

With no North Korean citizens allowed inside, the country’s two current casinos are staffed and operated entirely by Chinese workers.

Chinese citizens, who have a fairly porous border with the otherwise secluded and secretive kingdom, come to either Yanggakdo International Hotel & Casino or The Empire Casino & Hotel in the city of Rason in the north to both work and gamble.

International Investment

Kim’s plan has long been to launch two further casino resorts, with one also featuring skiing. One was to be built in the city of Sinuiju in the northwest of the country and another, a ski resort, in Wosan in the East.

The second of those two resorts completed construction back in 2013 but has only been sporadically open since, after failing to attract international investment.

There was also the distinct lack of snow in the mountains each Winter, attributed to climate change by the government, which proved a stumbling block when trying to attract Chinese skiers.

The other casino resort of Sinuiju began construction in 2018 but only got as far as 20 floors of the hotel before the Chinese government reportedly pushed Kim to halt the project.

As we previously reported, gambling is illegal in China, but millions of its citizens visit the casinos on the island of Macau or gamble at offshore online casinos based in the Philippines and other local regions.

Such disputes may have played a role in the decision of President Xi Jinping’s regime to step up the pressure on their impoverished neighbor over its ambitions to become a new gambling hub in the region.

The media reported that Kim Jong Un had personally written a letter to President Donald Trump asking the United States to back the project before China bought the hammer down on the idea.

Other various high-profile international investors were reportedly seriously considering investing in the project. These included such major figures as Las Vegas’ Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson and disgraced convicted tax evader and billionaire Yang Bin.

Las Vegas’ Sands owns many casinos in the region, including in the 2019NCov coronavirus outbreak-hit city of Macau.

In a further connection, Pyongyang Casino is operated by noted Macau-based entrepreneur Stanley Ho, who had monopoly ownership of Macau’s casinos for many years.

The Asian gaming hub is more linked with Pyongyang than almost any other city in the world, with two daily flights between the two starkly different cities.

That was, however, until last month, when North Korea indefinitely suspended all international travel in or out of its borders due to the threat of the coronavirus.

Experts have mooted that the virus, which is seemingly under control in Macau for the moment after the city closed all of its casinos for two weeks, could be rampantly spreading in North Korea—and the rest of the world would have no idea.

Currently, tourism to the two casinos in North Korea brings in over $50 million a year, which is no small change to a state that brings in only $7 billion in yearly revenue—less than a fair few individual billionaires around the world.

We’ll keep you updated on this story and any other key gambling developments in the Asian market.

Author Thomas Wolf


Thomas Wolf

384 articles

Thomas Wolf is our editor in chief. With an extensive background in online gambling (both working for casino operators and game studios) as well as an MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management, he's a proper authority on online casinos. When not running the day to day operations or reviewing new operators Thomas is a blackjack aficionado with some seriously big wins recorded at land-based casinos in both Las Vegas, Monaco and Macau.
North Korea leader Kim Jong Un visiting ski & casino resorts