North Korea turns to horse race betting as cost of sanctions begins to take hold

  • Horse racing introduced as North Korean government attempt to raise foreign currency
  • International sanctions have hit key exports such as coal, seafood and textiles

North Koreans, who once faced the prospect of three years hard labour if they were caught gambling, are now able to bet on horse racing as the isolated nation looks for new ways to generate currency in the face of international sanctions.

Kim Jong-un's North Korea is turning to gambling as the sanctions begin to bite.
Kim Jong-un’s North Korea is turning to gambling as the sanctions begin to bite.

The leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, has embarked on a building spree, constructing resorts, swimming pools and other leisure facilities, as he attempts to benefit from the increase in personal wealth brought about by an expanding private market.

According to the country’s official KCNA news agency, a number of horse races were staged on Sunday at the Mirim Horse Riding Club, a flagship leisure developments close to Pyongyang.

All spectators aged twelve or over were permitted to bet on the jockeys in what Korean Central Television described as a raffle-type system.

Pictures obtained from KCNA reveal hundreds of race-goers watching the racing and filming with their phones, as a field made up of mainly white-grey horses jumped from the starting gate.

Horses – and particularly white horses – are a propaganda symbol often used by and associated with the Kim family.

Foreign currency

According to Na Jeong-won of the North Korea Industry-Economy Research Institute, based in Seoul, the horse racing event is part of an economic push for currency:

“Kim has been pushing for vanity projects for a theme park, sky resort and the horse riding club for the sake of propping up the people’s well-being but their real purpose was to earn foreign currency.”

North Korea has had limited access to foreign currency due to international sanctions, which have hit major exports including coal, textiles and seafood, but there are some wealthy North Koreans and by setting up leisure facilities where payment is in US dollars or Chinese renminbi, the government is able to obtain additional foreign currency.

The country already operates casinos for foreigners in Pyongyang and Rason, and in March, the North Korean government announced proposals for new casinos in Namyang, close to the Chinese border, and the popular tourist resort of Mount Kumkang.

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