Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012 | 2 a.m.
For all the mystery engulfing North Korea, Robert E. Goodman knows what that isolated country and tourist-laden Las Vegas have in common.
They both lust for Chinese gamblers.
Goodman has worked both sides of the fence, at one point based in Hong Kong and organizing Las Vegas junkets for Chinese gamblers, and later being hired to recruit Chinese gamblers to a new casino in a port city on North Korea’s northeast tip.
That unlikely assignment lasted about four years and, Goodman says, paid “really well.”
The trajectory that put Goodman in the city of Rason — where coal from nearby China was shipped across the Sea of Japan to Shanghai — has its roots in Nevada.
Goodman, born in Idaho, was a casino marketing executive in Carson City when he was tapped by then-Gov. Mike O’Callaghan, to serve as the state’s first economic development director in the 1970s.
After some time, he was hired to head the North Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce and, after that, moved to Hong Kong, where he worked in the marketing department of American Airlines.
With his growing familiarity with international travel and Asian customers, Goodman began organizing gambling junkets on behalf of Las Vegas casinos.
By then he had gotten the eye of other gambling companies, and was hired by a Hong Kong developer, the Emperor Group, which was building a luxury boutique hotel and casino in Rason. It was an extraordinary commercial effort by the North Korean government to bring cash-rich Chinese into the country.
From about 1998 to early 2002, Goodman spent two to three weeks at a time in one of the most isolated parts of the world, marketing the 100-room hotel and its opulent casino.
North Koreans could work in kitchens and restaurants but were not allowed to either gamble as customers or deal cards as employees, he said. Malaysians were brought in for those jobs.
Goodman said he had a resident work permit and was allowed free rein of the country — but spent most of the time near the hotel-casino where he worked.
Twice at large events he saw the “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-il, but he never met him.
Goodman, now 77 and living in California, said his memory of North Korea is dominated by memories of hard-working, uncomplaining laborers and the amazing patience shown among residents waiting in long lines for buses without shoving. “It was disciplined, like a disciplined cult,” he said.
Today, Goodman holds a soft spot for North Korea, saying the United States should treat the reclusive country with greater respect.
The remark comes despite his last encounter with North Koreans.
It occurred after then-President George W. Bush declared North Korea part of the “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union speech.
The next time that Goodman went to cross the Chinese border into North Korea, the guard he had become friendly with — thanks in part to the food and candy that Goodman shared with him — turned a cold shoulder. He said Americans could no longer enter the country.
Efforts should be made, Goodman said, to restore relations between the two countries.
“But it seems like we’re negotiating with a chip on our shoulder, and you can’t negotiate like that,” he said.
As for the Emperor resort: It closed for a time when China restricted travel to North Korea — in part because the Chinese government discovered that some of its bureaucrats were gambling away government money at the North Korean casino. The Emperor later reopened, and most recently closed its doors again following the death of Kim Jong-il.
In 2005, Asia Times reported that about 50,000 Chinese visited the Emperor annually. It quoted the casino’s Chinese-hosted website boasting that “our smiling hospitable hostesses will keep your spirit thriving into the wee hours” and inviting guests to “immerse yourself in our heated indoor swimming pool to sweep off any weariness induced by your hectic schedule.”