South Korea's Government Takes Aim at Gambling-Related 'Hold’em Pubs

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A government-backed task force in South Korea has set its sights on cracking down on gambling-related "hold’em pubs" to curb the growth of this poker-themed bar culture.

The inaugural meeting of the ‘Hold’em Pub Illegal Response Taskforce was held in Seoul, where representatives from various government ministries and the National Police Agency gathered to discuss measures to tackle the issue.

‘Hold’em pubs are popular venues in South Korea where players can engage in poker games by exchanging money for chips. While these establishments are legally allowed if they only permit players to exchange coupons instead of cash, many of them have been found to facilitate real-money gambling, which is illegal for locals in Korea. Additionally, authorities have accused these establishments of enabling money laundering and disregarding health, safety, and sanitation regulations.

Nationwide Measures

The task force, recognizing the increasing popularity of ‘hold’em pubs among Korean youngsters and celebrities, aims to implement various measures to address the situation. One of the key actions will be a nationwide fact-finding investigation that will run until September, seeking to identify the scale and nature of the issue.

To strengthen the crackdown, the task force will work alongside local governments and associations to provide guidance to businesses. Meanwhile, they plan to introduce stricter penalties for those operating illegal ‘hold’em pubs, including up to seven years of imprisonment and a hefty fine of ₩70m (£43,000/€49,000/$55,000), which is a considerable increase compared to the current punishment of up to five years in prison and a ₩30m fine.

Financial Stimulation

To encourage the public's involvement in reporting illegal gambling establishments, the task force will offer rewards for informants, with compensation of up to ₩50m for reporting such activities. In the second quarter, the government's bounty review committee awarded ₩152m in compensation for 1,249 reported cases of illegal gambling, with 26 related to physical premises and the rest pertaining to online platforms.

Driving the proposed regulatory changes is the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, which aims to strengthen oversight on ‘hold’em pubs. Additionally, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family plans to classify these establishments as "harmful to youth" by December, with the intention of curbing their promotion to teenagers.

The taskforce's initiative has garnered widespread support from those concerned about the impact of gambling on society, especially among the younger generation. By taking a firm stance on illegal gambling activities in ‘hold’em pubs, the South Korean government hopes to safeguard its citizens from the potential harms associated with unregulated gambling, money laundering, and other illicit activities. As the fact-finding mission progresses and the proposed regulatory changes take shape, it remains to be seen how the ‘hold’em pub culture will evolve in the coming months.

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