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Here's a new destination for your golf bucket list: North Korea

Pyongyang Golf Course
Simon Jones
CHOKED UP: The penal layout at Pyongyang is defined by narrow fairways and O.B. stakes.

"Are you ready to play golf?" Ms. Kim said through a P.A. system in our tour bus.

It was midmorning, midweek, on the outskirts of Pyongyang, and we were inching down the middle of a six-lane highway, our progress slowed by potholes as large as swimming pools. Outside, the landscape crept past in dreary slow-mo, a montage of barren fields and arid-looking farms. In the near distance, men steered ox-pulled plows. Others tended to sparse rows of corn and cabbage. Toddlers, hauling buckets, waded through rice paddies beside their bent-backed elders, as soldiers, packing rifles, monitored their labors from higher ground.

There was no traffic to speak of, aside from swarms of bicycles pedaled by riders in drab brown uniforms. Occasionally, a van wheeled past us, blaring exhortations from speakers on its roof -- "friendly encouragement," our guides told us, for the workers in the fields to work harder still. "Are you ready to play golf?" Ms. Kim asked again.

A rhetorical question, I assumed. We all needed a breather from the routine we'd been on. We'd arrived three days before and had spent most of our time since on sightseeing tours, which, in North Korea, are as canned and uneventful as a Tiger Woods press conference. The primary difference is that the former focus on the exploits of not one man but two.

To many Western eyes, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il stand tall among the ranks of father-and-son tyrants, a pair of ruthless autocrats whose consecutive reigns, starting with the elder's rise to power in 1948, consigned their people to medieval deprivations. In North Korea, though, they are held as demigods.

In Pyongyang and its surroundings, evidence loomed of their deification: Their likenesses are emblazoned on brightly colored murals and etched onto monoliths and war memorials. Everywhere we went, we were told in reverent tones of each man's accomplishments, some real (spearheading a revolution, in the 1930s, against the occupying Japanese), some imagined (dispatching a manned rocket to outer space). We were given little choice but to play along. At the Mansudae Grand Monument, in the heart of the city, we waited our turn, behind throngs of sobbing children, to bow and lay fresh flowers before 65-foot bronze statues of the two late leaders, a gesture of respect requested of us by our guides. When I raised my camera for a photo of the figures, I was told to double-check my frame of reference to ensure that I'd captured them in full.

"Please," Ms. Kim told me, "you are not permitted to crop their heads or feet."

Moments that struck me as South Park–like dark parody were treated by our chaperones with great solemnity. At the International Friendship Exhibition Hall, two hours north of Pyongyang, we were asked to bow again, this time before a wax figure of Kim Il-sung, which stood on a mountainscape diorama that called to mind a stage set from The Sound of Music. At the Mangyongdae Children's Palace, a youth education center, we stood in quiet classrooms, watching girls with furrowed brows fuss over needlepoints of Kimjongilia and Kimilsungia, flowers named in honor of the dead heads of state.

"Have you ever seen anything more beautiful?" a guide asked over my shoulder.

At no point was there mention of inconvenient truths: of, for instance, Kim Jong-il's indulgences in sports cars and fine cognac while catastrophic famines racked his country; or of the concentration camps established by his father -- barbaric state-run prisons, where, according to human rights groups and refugee accounts, hundreds of thousands remain captive, subjected to torture and starvation. Untold numbers have been put to death.

What few breaks we had from the propaganda came in the form of bizarre entertainments. We were taken to a shooting range in Pyongyang where live chickens served as moving targets (anyone who hit a bird got to take it home), and to a Cirque du Soleil–style show in which acrobats and jugglers were upstaged by jump-roping bears and roller-skating baboons.

The intent there was light-hearted, but the only humor I enjoyed was accidental. At a souvenir shop, I came upon an outsize coffee table book, filled with standard-looking photos of woodsy settings. Its title clarified why the shots were special: Trees at Which Kim Jong-Il Had a Look.

Now, through the window of our tour bus, I had a look at a few trees, too -- a stand of leafy elms, which flanked a gravel turnoff from the highway: North Korea's version of Magnolia Lane. Our bus rumbled down it, past flooded fields and low-slung concrete dwellings, then up a hill, where the road became smooth concrete and a thin ribbon of fairway came into view. Beyond it was a clubhouse, with a green-tiled roof and a man in a blue uniform standing in its doorway: the golf course manager. He smiled in greeting but was reluctant to engage in clubhouse banter.

"Had he witnessed the Dear Leader's epic round?" I asked through a translator.

He chuckled but said nothing.

And what of Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il's son, who'd been named to power after his father's funeral in late 2011 and was already hailed as the "Great Successor" -- had he had a chance to play?

"Only a few holes," the manager said. "But he performed quite well."

As it is on most days, the course was empty, but a gallery had gathered around the first tee, composed of a gaggle of giggling caddies, a Pyongyang Times reporter and a camera crew from state-run TV. If quality golf was what they wanted, they weren't going to get it -- not from our ragtag field of 15, anyway. For this, the first of our three rounds, there was no North Korean; we were told that he might turn up later. But our core group had been joined by a self-taught Filipino, a hacker from Hong Kong, and four cheerful Mongolians. All four claimed to be beginners, but their real excuse, they said, was that they'd been up late, pounding vodka.

First up was the Finn, who belted a banana ball into oblivion, followed by the Kiwi, whose factory in China produced candied lingerie but whose swing in North Korea produced a shank.

My partner was a middle-aged Mongolian named Tsogo, a third-degree black belt in karate and the former head of security for Mongolia's secret service who now ran the country's free-fighting association. Maybe not the man to mess with, but he seemed friendly, his swing looked sound and besides, who could resist?

"You da Mongolian!" I bellowed as he uncorked one. The ball arced left and vanished into the trees.

On another layout, we might have found it, but Pyongyang Golf Course is an unforgiving track, abundant in snug doglegs and thick native grasses and out-of-bounds stakes. Nor does the conditioning make it any kinder. The fairways are as woolly as the first-cut at a muni, the greens stimp out at the speed of a shag carpet and the bunkers yield little but fried-egg lies.

To keep things moving, we'd agreed to play the O.B. stakes as lateral hazards. But another local rule, laid down by our tour guides, had nothing to do with pace of play: photos were forbidden on the first six holes. That seemed an odd restriction. But it wasn't long before I understood the reason. Just beyond the fifth green, peering through the trees across Lake Taicheng, I spied the rooftop of a shore-side mansion, and, before it, a covered dock with a yacht moored in it. Rumor was that it had belonged to Kim Jong-il, whose many high-end hobbies included pleasure boating.

After the round, I asked Ms. Kim about it.

"What yacht?" she said, and walked away.

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