By Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL (Reuters) - Punters in North Korea who once risked three years hard labor for gambling are now able to bet on local horse races as the isolated country scrambles to unearth new sources of hard currency amid intensifying international sanctions.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been building resorts, swimming pools and other luxurious leisure facilities in what experts say is a bid to capture some of the individual wealth generated by growing private markets for goods and services.
A series of races took place at the Mirim Horse Riding Club, one of Kim's flagship leisure developments, near Pyongyang on Sunday, according to North Korea's official KCNA news agency.
Race goers aged 12 or older were allowed to bet on jockeys in a raffle-type system, broadcaster Korean Central Television said on Friday ahead of the races.
Pictures from KCNA showed hundreds of spectators watching and filming with their phones as a field of mostly white-grey horses and their riders stormed out of the starting gate.
In the communist North, horses - especially white ones - have traditionally been a propaganda symbol associated with the ruling Kim family.
"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," said Na Jeong-won, head of the North Korea Industry-Economy Research Institute in Seoul.
North Korea's access to foreign currency has been impacted by a series of international sanctions over its nuclear weapons program, including bans on key exports such as coal, textiles and seafood.
Lee Sang-keun, a researcher at the Institute of Unification Studies of Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said the primary target for the leisure facilities is affluent North Koreans.
"You may have ridiculed Kim Jong Un for constructing lavish facilities while struggling to feed the people, but those things are to make foreign currency, not from foreigners but from the well-offs inside North Korea because you have to pay in U.S. dollars or Chinese renminbi there," said Lee.
"Many North Koreans make lots of money from the market, dine at hamburger restaurants and go shopping, all of which help fatten regime coffers. That’s part of the reason why the regime still has some financial latitude despite international sanctions."
North Korea has already been operating casinos for foreigners in Pyongyang and Rason, where it jointly runs a special economic zone with China.
Last March, the government sent out investment proposals for new casinos in Namyang, near the border of China, and the Mount Kumkang region, home to a scenic tourist resort just north of the border with South Korea. The United Nations' latest round of sanctions, however, bans any further joint ventures with North Korean companies.
Third generation leader Kim developed the Mirim riding club by transforming a military horseman training center in 2012 and visited the site several times until its formal unveiling a year later, KCNA has reported.
The Mirim riding club has an indoor training facility, seven outdoor riding courses, a pavilion, restaurants and a sauna, as well as 120 horses including 67 famous Orlov Trotters from Russia, according to the website of Uri Tours, a U.S.-based agency specialized in guided trips through the North.
The entrance fee is $35, which covers one-hour of horse riding with an instructor, riding gear and sauna.
The fee could be lower for North Koreans, reportedly at around $10 - still a hefty sum for many impoverished locals.
"There seems to be growing demand for such leisure activities among North Koreans as the gap between the rich and the poor has been widening," said Na.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Lincoln Feast)