Update: This article was updated on December 5 to include remarks from an Alipay spokesperson
Free Wi-Fi internet access and support for online money transfers via two well-known Chinese platforms is now available at a Pyongyang casino, regular travelers to North Korea told NK News this week.
The foreign-managed Casino Pyongyang, which re-opened at the Yanggakdo Hotel in October following renovations, appears to have installed the services to attract more customers and make it easier to gamble.
“It’s a fairly shaky (Wi-Fi) connection requiring a VPN to use any foreign websites, however, (it) has Alipay and Union Pay options for high-rollers to gain access to money while gambling,” said Matt Kulesza, a tour guide with the China-based Young Pioneer Tours company.
Another visitor familiar with the development said the purpose of the infrastructure appeared intended to facilitate payments.
“They seem to be letting people use the Wi-Fi if they buy something, but I imagine it is mainly for payments with Alipay and WeChat,” said Simon Cockerell, General Manager with Koryo Tours.
“This saves them needing so much cash there, I guess,” he added.
“Not sure what the Chinese government – which is anti-gambling, of course – makes of that.”
Alipay – created by Alibaba and its founder Jack Ma – is one of the world’s largest mobile wallet providers in the world, though it distanced itself from the issue in remarks provided to NK News.
“It is untrue that Alipay is available at a Pyongyang casino,” an Alipay spokesperson said. “Alipay doesn’t have any partnership with the casino in Pyongyang.”
The Shanghai-based Union Pay, in turn, provides card services for major banks mostly in China and throughout Asia.
But sanctions – both by the UN and the United States Treasury Department – concerning North Korea make the online international financial transactions potentially problematic.
“Without more information on the specifics of this credit relationship it is difficult to say for certain whether there has been a violation of UN sanctions and if so, where it has occurred,” said Tristan Webb, a regular contributor to NK News sister site NK Pro.
“If the credit relationship involves a correspondence banking service with a DPRK bank, that service would be prohibited by paragraph 33 of UNSCR 2270, but it’s not clear if that’s the case here,” he continued.”
“Furthermore, if the relevant States have not decided that the financial transfers involved in this operation could contribute to or are associated with the DPRK’s prohibited activities… it is possible that the provision of credit lines to the casino might not engage UN Security Council sanctions at all (paragraph 11 UNSCR 2094, paragraph 8 of UNSCR 1718 in light of paragraph 32 of UNSCR 2270, etc).”
Above all, Webb said, “it is the presence of the casino itself that puzzles me the most, rather than its credit relationship outside the DPRK, as I wonder how it could operate without violating the prohibition on Joint Ventures (paragraph 18 of UNSCR 2375).”
Open access to Wi-Fi is extremely rare in Pyongyang, with the DPRK having in the past cited interests of national security to instruct foreign residents to stop using the technology in 2014.
The government order followed a story by The Diplomat in August that year, which reported that housing prices had skyrocketed in areas surrounding Pyongyang’s diplomatic compound where open WiFi networks were said to be commonly accessible.
Signs of increasing acceptance of the technology have recently emerged, however.
A commercially accessible Wi-Fi internet access point was installed at the capital’s Potonggang hotel sometime in early fall, for example.
Pyongyang authorities are also said to complain less sharply to local embassies and NGOs about Wi-Fi signals than in the past, sources previously told NK News.
Casinos, for their part, are not common in North Korea, with only two reported to be in the country as of 2015 and a project to allegedly build a new casino in the border city of Sinuiju recently halted due to Chinese opposition.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Uri Tours
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