Tensions haven't affected Mohegans' South Korea project

An artist's rendering of the resort-casino complex Mohegan Sun and the Incheon International Airport Group have agreed to develop at Incheon International Airport in South Korea. (Artist's rendering courtesy Mohegan Sun)
An artist's rendering of the resort-casino complex Mohegan Sun and the Incheon International Airport Group have agreed to develop at Incheon International Airport in South Korea. (Artist's rendering courtesy Mohegan Sun)

Mohegan — An easing in U.S.-North Korea tensions was welcome news Wednesday for Mohegan tribal officials pursuing development of a $1.6 billion casino resort in Incheon, South Korea.

“The tenor has changed in the last few days,” Kevin Brown, the Mohegan chairman, said of the back-and-forth between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader.

“China has seemingly been effective in backing Kim down a notch,” Brown said. “That’s a good news story for everybody, never mind Mohegan Gaming.”

Brown said the geopolitical situation so far has had no effect on the pace of the Inspire casino resort project, which Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment is pursuing in partnership with a South Korean company and the Incheon Airport Corp., owner of the development site.

Groundbreaking, he said, is set for mid-November.

“Nothing about his antics have affected our ability to press forward,” said Brown, chairman of the Inspire board of directors, referring to Kim. “If you were to ask our partners in South Korea, they’d say Americans are making way more of it than they do. Living on the southern end of the (Korean) peninsula, they’ve been under threat of war or dynastic efforts throughout their existence. They’re almost numb to the notion that they’re in danger.”

MGE is making a “significant foreign investment” in South Korea, he said, and maintains regular contact with officials of the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Defense.

Brown, a retired Army officer, cited the Trump administration’s success in enlisting China’s help in dealing with North Korea and said he expected economic sanctions imposed against North Korea by the United Nations Security Council to be effective.

“Since last Thursday, there have been no evacuations, no travel alerts, no large-scale military maneuvers, nothing to cause us any alarm,” he said. “Tribal members often ask me if we should be concerned (about the South Korea project). When they tell me Kim talks about having an ICBM (missile) that can reach Washington state, I say, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t have built there, either.’”

The Mohegans partnered with the Cowlitz Indian Tribe in developing a La Center, Wash., casino that opened near Portland, Ore., in the spring.

Brown said MGE has a permanent presence in South Korea and that a contingent of Mohegan officials — “four to eight of us” — travels there for board meetings. Recently, “construction people” have been deployed there in three-week stints, he said.

Gary Luderitz, MGE’s senior vice president of business development, moved to South Korea more than a year ago, Brown said.

Inspire offices in South Korea are occupied by as many as 30 people, including Korean nationals, project partners and a project management team, he said.

“We’re there, we’re not transient,” said Brown, who plans to return to South Korea later this month with Mario Kontomerkos, MGE’s chief financial officer. During the visit, they expect to introduce a new chief operating officer for the Inspire project.

MGE also is close to naming a new chief executive officer to replace Bobby Soper, who resigned in February. Mitchell Etess has been serving in that role on an interim basis.

Brown said he has visited Paradise City, a competing South Korean casino resort that opened in Incheon in April and whose results so far have been disappointing.

“We will be distinguishable from what they’ve created,” he said. “We’re talking about a breakthrough concept. We literally will be different. They have three food-and-beverage venues, which are nice, but they don’t have a 15,000-seat arena, they have half the rooms we’re going to have and no high-end gaming environment.”

In addition to an arena, Inspire also will have four hotel towers, an “entertainment village,” a retail component, an amusement park and numerous food-and-beverage options, Brown said.

“When you get off your plane, our front door will be five minutes away,” he said.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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