North Korea Golf Open: Josh Sens explores golf in the secretive country

December 19, 2012

On a cloudless morning, 15 miles west of the North Korean capital, I stepped onto the first tee of Pyongyang Golf Course and peered down the fairway of a punishing par 4, with water right, thick woods left and white stakes standing sentinel on either side. A warm wind whipped off Taicheng Lake, ruffling the flagsticks and rattling my focus. Or maybe I was shaken by the wayward shots I’d seen. My playing partner, a hungover Mongolian, had just pumped his Titleist into the pines, following a trail blazed by earlier groups, which featured, among others, a wild-swinging Finn; a Filipino with a flying right elbow; and a New Zealander who’d left what game he had in his adoptive home of China, where he ran a factory that produced edible underwear.

“Now on the tee…” a voice announced in a posh British accent, a formal touch to what was otherwise a hackfest.

Cameras whirred behind me, capturing the moment for state-run TV.

My caddie approached, a shy, smiling young woman hauling a set of ancient rental clubs behind her. I settled on a weapon, a whippy 3-wood, waggled, swung and duck-hooked my ball into the hazard — a fitting start to a kooky amateur event in a country where most actions are considered out of bounds.

That golf is played at all in North Korea owes to its late despot, Kim Il-sung, the “Great Leader,” who, in 1987, approved construction of what was then the country’s only course, in commemoration of his 75th birthday. That the course has gained strange fame in the sporting world stems largely from Kim’s son and successor, Kim Jong-il, the “Dear Leader,” who reportedly carded a 38-under 34 the only time he played it, in a round highlighted by five holes-in-one.

In the years since, no one has come close to that fantastical course record. Then again, few have tried. Desperately poor and brutally oppressed, North Korea’s population of 25 million counts among it an estimated 42 registered golfers. South Koreans aren’t permitted into the country. For the average Western golfer — especially those who write for Western magazines — North Korea sits high on the list of impenetrable venues, somewhere between Seminole and the moon.

I’d won entry to the country with assistance from Lupine Travel, the British tour company that oversees the Open. Its owner, Dylan Harris, a laid-back thirty-something with the shaggy sideburns of a ’70s pop star, launched the event (formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Amateur Golf Open, in recognition of the country’s official name) in 2011, adding to a list of offbeat offerings that includes trips to Chernobyl and eight-day excursions to Turkmenistan. Earlier this year, Harris also staged the inaugural Iranian Amateur Golf Open, and he’s working out the details for an event in Iraq, which, if he succeeds, will give him all three stops on golf’s Axis-of-Evil swing.

Once I’d earned approval to enter North Korea, there was the matter of getting to Pyongyang. The most common route for tourists is by train from China. But for no apparent reason, aside from sour relations with the United States, the North Korean regime requires Americans to fly in, which I did, puddle-jumping on a Soviet-era jet from the eastern Chinese city of Shenyang.

On the turbulent flight over, I was handed a copy of The Pyongyang Times, an English language weekly and propagandist mouthpiece, which brimmed with contempt for perceived foes. One op-ed fumed about the U.S. State Department, which had deigned to raise concerns over human rights abuses in North Korea. The U.S. should hold its tongue, the piece stated, given its position as “the ringleader of man-killing” around the globe.

As far as I could tell, I was the lone American on the plane. Yet any fears I harbored of being singled out vanished on arrival at the Pyongyang airport, where I met with the same treatment given everyone else: my passport confiscated, my cell phone commandeered, and my luggage searched for contraband, a loosely defined category that includes GPS devices and writings deemed inflammatory.

Cleared through customs, I was greeted by a woman in a flower-patterned dress, who introduced herself as Ms. Kim. She was one of our two tour guides, government minders who would shadow our golf group throughout our visit, trailing us like caddies wherever we went.

“Your friends will be here soon,” Ms. Kim said of my soon-to-be-opponents, who were scheduled to arrive that evening by diesel locomotive. Word was that the field included two Brits, an Aussie, a Kiwi and a Finn. Four Mongolians were expected to join later, along with a Hong Kong native, perhaps a Filipino, and a North Korean — a rainbow coalition, competing in an Open in a country so closed off that it’s called the Hermit Kingdom, a nation armed with nukes and a million-man army, but shuttered by its government onto itself.

“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.


By then I’d grown accustomed to non-answers and half-truths, even to the most straightforward queries. Earlier that week, on a sightseeing visit to the 38th parallel, the heavily guarded border between North and South Korea, I’d asked for an update on the Diamond Mountain resort, a luxury hotel and golf course that was opened in 1998 as a joint venture by the two Koreas and operated by Hyundai, the Seoul-based automaker. Once a symbol of hope for reunification, the resort became an emblem of bad blood between the nations in 2008, when North Korean troops shot and killed a South Korean guest as she strolled along a restricted beach.

In the wake of that incident, Diamond Mountain shut down. But I’d since read reports that the North Korean government had seized the property and was eager to draw tourists back to it. One rumor even had it that the course was now operating as a playground for wealthy foreigners. I wanted to know more, but I should have known better.

“I’ve heard nothing about this,” Ms. Kim said when I asked.

It was possible, of course, that she really hadn’t; secrecy in North Korea is a way of life. Before I arrived, I’d been warned that my hotel room would be bugged and any e-mails I sent from the business center vetted. Any violations of North Korean law, be it slandering Kim Jong-il or trying to socialize with the general population, would be met with deportation.

Not that there was much chance to bend the rules. Like many Western tourists, we were housed for the week in the Yanggakdo Hotel, a 47-story tower set on an island in a broad tributary of the Taedong River, which flows southwest through Pyongyang. We were free to wander around the property but forbidden to cross the pedestrian bridge that links the island to the rest of the city. Until last year, hotel guests had access to a par-3 course just outside the lobby. But that layout had been bulldozed. I could see its faded footprint from the window of my room on the 43rd floor, where I’d sit every evening, watching the lights twinkle in the city, until 10 p.m. when, in a forlorn nightly ritual, power is shut down across the capital.

In Pyongyang, they even tell you when it’s bedtime.

As an antidote to the sobering experience of being in North Korea, we had the slapstick goof that was the tournament itself. For starters, there was the scoring system, implemented by our Open “referee,” a septuagenarian Brit, who, in a prior life, had officiated professional events. Though we’d all submitted handicaps before arriving, the official took it upon himself to change them, using calculations so convoluted that no one could explain them, least of all the scorekeeper himself. The upshot was that by the end of the first day, my 6 index was inflated to a 9; a Brit named Simon saw his jump from 12 to 30; while the Finn, who admitted to playing off 18, watched his balloon to an improbable 52.

It was absurd, but none of it mattered. And like golf almost anywhere, anytime, it turned out to be a lot of fun. We hacked, we laughed. We laughed, we hacked. Then we piled into the clubhouse, where we drank and laughed some more.

By the second day, the Filipino had withdrawn, as had the Hong Kong businessman. But a lone North Korean had joined the competition. Sort of. He showed up on the first tee, banged a few practice balls into the lake, then grew tired of waiting and, without a word, hopped into his cart and drove to the back nine.

By then I’d gained control over my whippy 3-wood, but I was hooding every iron and three-putting half the greens. The golf was carefree. The only pressure I felt came from trying to play well for my caddie, who responded to my poor shots with such pained exclamations that a spectator might have thought she had hit them herself.

When dawn broke on Day 3, the final round, I was somehow in third place, behind my pal, Tsogo, the Mongolian black belt, and Simon, the alleged 30.

The three of us were grouped together in the final round, a sloppy affair in which we lost more balls than we made birdies. In the end, Simon was the runaway winner. I’d held my hold on third. We retired to the clubhouse for a trophy ceremony and a boozefest, fueled by the Mongolians, who broke out several bottles of vodka.

Giddiness reigned on the bus ride to the hotel. Midway through it, Ms. Kim grabbed the mic and serenaded us, in a heavy accent, with the Titanic theme: an oddly touching moment, a break from the propagandist script. As I stepped off the bus in the hotel parking lot, Ms. Kim smiled warmly. But the next morning, when she retrieved me to take me to the airport, she was back to her steely tour-guide self. At the terminal, she waved me through departures, wheeled and left.

As my plane took off, I peered through the window for one last glimpse at North Korea, and I kept looking as we rose into a cloud bank. The land grew misty, then vanished altogether. The Open was over, and my portal to a strange, sad world had closed.

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