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Why gambling celebrities are shamed in South Korea

By Staff Reporter | October 16, 2018 06:49 PM EDT

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Showbiz stars have always enjoyed having a flutter at a casino - maybe because casinos are just as glamorous and exclusive as the celebrity lifestyle itself. But in some parts of the world, the relationship between famous faces and gambling is not such a comfortable one.

This is certainly the case in South Korea, where a number of K-Pop stars have been publicly shamed for their associations with illegal gambling.

Let's investigate the reasons behind this trend - and how it stands in stark contrast with the status quo in the Western world.

The legality of gambling in Korea

The practise of gambling in Korea is mainly illegal across the country with some very isolated exceptions. For an operator to be able to provide betting services anywhere in the country, they have to prove that they are 'working for the common good of the country and its people'.

Tourism is one area that physical premises can use as a valid reason to operate and that's why there are a number of bricks-and-mortar casinos set up across South Korea. However, only one of those is open to Korean nationals.

Clearly, South Korea is a country with heavy gambling restrictions - and this extends to online gambling, which is strictly outlawed.

There are tough penalties in place for those that transgress - with the courts regularly handing out fines of up to KRW 5 million ($4,370) - but somehow that hasn't managed to stop a host of K-Pop stars who have been publicly shamed for their interest in gambling.

Not so H.O.T.

Tony An was best known as a member of the South Korean boy band H.O.T but in 2013 he hit the headlines for very different reasons. Along with a host of celebrities including comedians Lee Soo Geun and and Yang Sae Hyang, he was part of a trial alleging illegal sports betting where hundreds of billions of won were staked.

An was found guilty and given a six-month prison sentence with one year's probation. Not only that - people were banned from broadcasting H.O.T.'s songs for a period of two years, underlining how seriously the government viewed his crime.

Also caught in the 2013 news story was Andy Lee, member of rival boy band Shinhwa, who received a fine for his role in sports betting. Lee apologised to fans: "As an individual and as a celebrity, I want to say that I'm sorry for causing any concern as a result of my disgraceful actions."

Stars ignoring the warnings

The relatively harsh nature of these penalties, plus the public embarrassment felt by the celebrities, was surely intended to deter other South Korean citizens from gambling. However, recently more stars have been falling foul of the rules.

In 2017, the perpetrator was Jing Jin Woo, part of pop band M2M - who were at the time riding a wave of fame and success off the back of a national idol competition. Just like An and Lee, Woo's activities related specifically to sports betting.

The notable point about Woo's conviction is the fact that he had previously received a warning over his gambling activities back in 2007. The advice went unheeded and he was caught again in 2014 and later handed a one-year prison sentence. The size of the transactions was huge and it's claimed that the K-Pop star had spent some $3.1m in bets over the years.

How gambling operators comply with national laws  

While the situation in South Korea may seem like an extreme one, all countries have some form of legislation in place in regards to gambling. In some countries, gambling operators are legal but aren't permitted to advertise, while others have strict rules and regulations for operators which must obtain a licence before trading.

This is the case in Canada, Australia and in many other parts of the world. In the UK, a change to the law in 2014 saw key amendments to the way in which operators paid tax. Faced with an adverse effect on their revenue, some operators chose to withdraw from the UK market.

Some gambling firms, however, employ a more flexible strategy - adjusting their business model to whichever market they're operating in. Online gambling giants such as 888 operate worldwide, and tailor the way they carry out business in each country - with the exception of countries where gambling over the internet is illegal.

With an international company such as 888 running a wide range of brands worldwide, many of them are available in more than one country. However, one unique example is their Bingo brand, Wink Bingo is only available to the UK market. Presumably, the thinking behind this is the popularity of bingo in the UK, the brand is tailored to satisfy the target market and the British culture.

The path to South Korea isn't clear for international operators just yet and it may not be for some time. It will take flexibility on both sides if the laws are to change and K-Pop gamblers and their fellow countrymen are to emerge from the underground.

Compare and contrasting celebrity gambling cultures

In South Korea, the message to would-be punters is clear - and it couldn't be more different to how celebrity gamblers are treated in the Western world.

When we consider the restrictions placed on South Korean nationals as a whole, they seem a million miles removed from the freedom enjoyed by citizens in the UK, in Europe as a whole and across the US.

If you're in Vegas and want to mingle with Demi Moore, Matt Damon, Pamela Anderson and others then it's possible to do so and there are even guides promoting the top casinos for celebrity gamblers.

A similar gambling culture exists in the UK, where the only exceptions to the list of celebrities frequenting exclusive casinos tend to be from the world of sport.

Sports men and women tend to distance themselves from the gaming floors because of the close links between their profession and the world of gambling - plus the fact that they're role models to young kids. Otherwise, actors, musicians and reality stars are a common sight in casinos - and they aren't demonised for indulging in their gambling passions.

It remains to be seen whether South Korea will relax its strict gambling laws, but until then we can expect to see the rule book being thrown at famous faces who are caught indulging in their gambling habits.

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