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PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — One of the most mysterious places at any of the Olympic venues here has been impossible to ignore.
For anyone driving into the Alpensia resort, the de facto nerve center of the Winter Games, the signs for a casino are posted everywhere.
It’s an unusual thing to see in the heart of the Olympics, largely because few people who are at the Games in any capacity (athlete, media member, coach) have much time to gamble. But as I approached the door, where they asked for my passport, a large sign indicated there was one group of people I wouldn’t see inside: Locals.
But at other times of year, the Alpensia resort is part ski lodge, part water park with several hotels and restaurants catering to international tourists. According to the World Casino Directory, there are 23 casinos in South Korea scattered throughout the country.
So maybe having a casino tucked behind a door adjoining the lobby of a Holiday Inn makes sense. But by law, there’s only one — the Kangwon Land Casino & Hotel, located in a remote area roughly 55 miles from Pyeongchang — in which South Korean citizens are allowed to gamble.
It’s the product of an evolving set of laws here that would be unusual, to say the least, to American sensibilities.
Whereas South Koreans can gamble on an array of games including a lottery, horse racing, boat racing and cycling, casino gambling is illegal — even for Koreans who travel outside the country.
According to the Korean Law Blog, which is authored by American Sean Hayes of IPG Legal, prosecution for overseas gambling is typically part of a larger case against someone.
One attorney in Seoul, who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to draw the attention of the government talking about such a sensitive topic, said significant numbers of trips to Las Vegas or Macau could draw the attention of prosecutors and potentially lead to criminal charges.
But as much as gambling is seen as problematic by the Korean government, there is a desire to build an industry around it catered to foreigners.