USFK shuts down, investigates casino fund-raisers at U.N. compound
YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — U.S. Forces Korea shut down a weekly gaming operation at the United Nations Command compound and has begun an investigation in the wake of news reports that unauthorized patrons were gambling illegally.
U.S. officials said they’re investigating whether “Casino Night,” a base fund-raiser that was to involve no exchange of money, turned into an illegal casino, according to a news release attributed to USFK spokeswoman Lt. Col. MaryAnn Cummings.
People in the U.N. Command mess (a club for members) organized the Saturday evening casinos, which mess members said began in July. USFK canceled the contract with the casinos’ South Korean operators Tuesday after a South Korean newspaper reported the illegal gambling, and a member of South Korea’s National Assembly admitted to losing $500 this past weekend at the event.
“I sincerely apologize to the people for being in an improper place at an improper time,” said Song Young-jim in a statement released by his office.
There are only two legal casinos in South Korea, and the U.S. military allows only slot machines in its gaming rooms. USFK said they cut the contract because the casino was allowing people onto the base illegally.
The news report, and Stripes’ interviews with two American members of the U.N. Command mess, detail an operation with roulette, blackjack and baccarat — and thousands of dollars exchanging hands.
Under bright lights, at the compound near the Capital Hotel outside Yongsan Garrison’s south post, 100 customers “intensely” played blackjack and baccarat, a Dong-a Ilbo story stated, and patrons were overheard saying, “I was bankrupt” and “I was so unlucky today.”
The reporter wrote that after midnight, he saw one man cashing out chips at a van in the parking lot and exchanging them for dollars from a safe.
“We are very concerned about reports of possible illegal gambling at a military fund-raising event,” Cummings stated in the news release, “and have ordered a full investigation of this incident to include how people gained access.
“It is not our policy to ignore Republic of Korea laws or U.S. military regulations, and we do not tolerate violations of either.”
Much of the casino operation’s details remained unclear Tuesday, as did the scope of the investigation. USFK officials said the could not immediately provide information about issues including:
¶ The contractor’s name.
¶ How the contractor received the award to operate the casino nights.
¶ The mess’s financial arrangements with the contractor.
¶ Further specifics of the contract terms.
¶ The total amount of money taken in at the casino nights.
¶ The fund-raisers’ advertised beneficiaries and how much money — including what percentage of the proceeds — those beneficiaries have received.
¶ The casino nights’ start date, hours and details of how they operated, including who staffed them, top stakes or bets allowed, number of participants and whether they were charged any sort of entry fee.
Col. Martin Glasser, UNC Military Armistice Commission secretary — top U.S. officer in the U.N. Command — could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Two members of the command’s mess who attended the events said they saw no money change hands. But both expressed doubts about the casino nights.
The operation “didn’t pass the smell test,” said Bryant Jublou. He said mess members understood gamblers received chits for their winnings, which they exchanged off post for cash.
“It just really bothers me,” said Jublou, a military retiree who works for an American contractor. Organizers “have to know it’s against Korean law to run a casino,” he said. “It looks like we are being really arrogant.”
Another mess member, who asked to remain anonymous, said he, too, never saw cash change hands but believes gamblers were trying to win money.
“Basically, that was a common sense thing for me to put together,” he said. “You are not going to get a lot of these people” to gamble in hopes of winning “teddy bears or toasters.” He said he stopped attending the mess’ Saturday evening events after the gambling started.
In the USFK statement, Cummings said the event was authorized as an “entertainment fund-raiser” that involved only non-cash prizes.
While persons with SOFA status — mostly servicemembers and civilian Defense Department employees and their families — can invite many of those without it on base, posted signs state that those authorized to sign in visitors must escort them throughout their trip on the base. Escorts who violate the rules may lose their privileges or face disciplinary action, the 8th Army said.
In South Korea, that means barring any without SOFA status from on-post slot machine rooms, which are legal for U.S. residents.
Unauthorized access to bases for gambling has been an issue with the South Korean government. About 25 people were detained in the past year for entering slot machine game rooms run by Morale, Welfare and Recreation, according to 8th Army. Many were escorted properly onto the base but the escorts then failed to maintain “proper control,” allowing their guests to drift into unauthorized areas, a spokesman said.
The slot-machine rooms are legal only for those with SOFA status.
While MWR is responsible for restricting access to game rooms, military police and courtesy patrols do random checks. But officials declined to say how often game rooms are inspected.
“We can say it happens once a day but you don’t know what time of day or it could happen 15 times a day,” said Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, an 8th Army spokesman.
“But if it’s happening once a day are you going to take the shot of, ‘Well, am I going to be in there when they do it that once?”