Golf's Front Line - Golf in North Korea
Relations between the Communist stronghold of North Korea and its southern neighbour have never, it seems, been better. But before a full thaw occurs, we take you inside the world's most secret nation -and on to its golf course.
The most exclusive golf club on the planet is not Augusta National or Pine Valley. Protected by a million-strong land army, almost 50 years of international isolation and a nuclear threat that keeps Asia on edge, the Pyongyang golf course fin North Korea offers a golfing experience like no other.
The course record is pretty other-worldly, too. During his maiden round at North Korea's first golf facility in October 1994, the 'Dear Leader', Kim Jong II, reportedly opened with a hole-in-one and required just 18 further strokes to finish the par-72 course. He only missed the ultimate scorecard by taking two at the par-five 18th.
In the not so Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, nothing can be taken at face value. Half the news that escapes the hermit kingdom is hearsay, the rest mostly rumour. As fans of golf and George Orwell, my wife and I longed to visit the scene of
Kim's apparent miracle, plus his unrivalled attempt to mirror 1984. Granted business visas, we seized our chance.
The Soviet Empire has long disintegrated, China has abandoned Marx and even Castro goes to Davos, but North Korea clings desperately to the Cold War and a personality cult that would make Chairman Mao blush. To swing a golf club in this people's paradise, leave your cell phone behind at customs, your disbelief as well, and don't even dream of internet access. You are entering a truly alternative society.
With the obligatory government minder in tow, we drove 25 miles from downtown Pyongyang, the capital city, past 'shock brigades' of teenagers building a motorway with their bare hands. On reaching Lake Thaesong, rumours about the course proved well-founded. The world's most hard-line Stalinist state, recovering from four years of famine, really does boast a manicured shrine to one of sport's most capitalist pastimes.
At the club entrance, a wall of propaganda reminds players that 'Generalissimo Kim II Sung is the Sun of the 21st Century', before a wall painting of the late 'Great leader' himself. At least he was there to greet us. We spent the next 15 minutes assaulting locked doors until we roused a caddie from her nap.
The land of morning calm is an appropriate home for Asia's emptiest golf course. Despite a warm spring sun, we were alone, less than an hour away from a city of two million people. Then again, we had sensibly avoided the weekend rush - four members on Saturdays, and up to eight on Sundays.
The identity of this select handful of members remains a mystery, but their course record is a very
mortal 75. Most likely they comprise top brass, a few Chinese, and the Japanese Koreans who financed and built the course for their regular trips home, suitcases laden with yen for poor relatives. It opened with a fanfare on April 15,1987, Kim II Sung's 75th birthday, though the president apparently left the golfing heroics to his son, Jong II.
By North Korean standards, recent times have witnessed a flurry of diplomatic activity. The Italians and Australians are now reaching out to Pyongyang, while the South Koreans have secured an unprecedented summit with the North this summer. And golf is playing its part in the diplomatic initiatives - if this year's tournament is judged a success, more facilities will be built, and easier travel arrangements implemented, to attract the wallets of foreign golfers. A 9-hole pitch-and-putt will soon be completed at the Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang, to complement the excellent driving range on Mount So. Again, my wife and I were alone on the range, in perhaps the only Asian capital bereft of executives honing their golf games.
During the time of my visit, Pyongyang was preparing to welcome 50 Korean-American professionals. Pearl Sinn among them, to its first golf tournament featuring foreigners. Just as 'ping-pong diplomacy' paved the way for Sino-US talks in the 1970s, so golf may help to bridge the divisions of half a century between North Korea and the west. While the South Korean President, Kim Jae-jung, may have hesitated at teeing off against Kim Jong II, his endorsement of the game, coupled with the LPGA Tour successes of Se Ri Pak, has boosted the game's popularity in the southern half of the peninsula. A growing army of golfers is waiting to swarm northwards.
They will find the course a refreshing change from the crowded fairways that are common elsewhere in Asia. The only slow play and divot marks are your own. Given the privations of the nation at large, course maintenance is remarkable. Those walking paths are not made by golfers but either by herds of goats, locals hunting firewood or edible roots, or the occasional wandering soldier who is part and parcel of the DPRK landscape. Just watch your photos at the 3rd tee, please, that's a military installation in the background.
Cut into forested hills rich with cherry trees and forsythia, the 6,200-metre Japanese design traces the shores of Lake Thaesong. At the long 5th, the birds were as startled as us at the ringing applause that followed my topped approach shot. Fifty young pioneers, red-scarved and beaming, sat in neat rows beside the green, the most enthusiastic gallery this duffer will ever enjoy. Once we were on our way, they resumed their PK class.
Compared to the revolutionary sites that crowd the tourist itinerary, a round here is as apolitical as the DPRK gets - caddies conceal the ubiquitous Kim II Sung badge that otherwise beams from every breast. There is no such restraint on the streets of Pyongyang. The elder Kim may have died in 1994, but the personality cults of father and son are going strong. Instead of advertising, billboards shout their slogans. Their solemn portraits adorn every home, office and metro car. Graffiti is an unknown art. Kimilsungia and Kimjungilia flower festivals are rapturously received. Like the hordes of local pilgrims, foreign visitors are also required to bow before their gargantuan statues.
Do not expect to escape such duties and explore the city yourself. From the moment you enter North Korea to the moment you leave, you are watched, guided and chaperoned like visiting royalty. "You had better listen to my words if you want to avoid trouble," warned Kim, our English-speaking guide. Unfailingly friendly, even when prohibiting photography, he succeeded in minimising all contact between local people and us. This seclusion extends even to resident expatriates, most of whom have never visited ordinary Korean homes.
Once you establish the game rules, the tour may begin with an appreciation of Pyongyang monumentalism. In 1953, US bombers claimed they had returned Korea to the Stone Age, and that Pyongyang could not rise again in 100 years. The Pyongyanites have proudly proved them wrong, erecting a socialist nirvana of broad avenues, bold designs and proletarian purity. All those vast squares come in very handy for practising mass demonstrations of the people's revolutionary fervour. Throughout the city, squads of women and schoolchildren waved fans and contorted themselves in preparation for October 10, the 55th anniversary of the ruling Worker's Party of Korea.
The North Korean people have known nothing else for all those years.
In a nation devoid of traffic, Pyongyang has a 13-lane highway. The centrepiece of the city is Kim II Sung Square, where a giant portrait of the late president locks eyes with Lenin and Marx. Across the Taedong River , looms the flame-topped Tower of the Juche Idea. " Forget Y2K, this is Juche 89. The Georgian calendar has been sidelined by the Juche Era from 1912, in honour of Kim Senior's birth and his ideology of self-reliance.
After decades as a Japanese colony, and carpet-bombing by the UN, Juche's appeal north of the 38th Parallel is understandable. In recent years, self-reliance has been a virtue born more of necessity, after "Judas" Gorbachev sold out the socialist cause, and with it most of North Korea's trading partners. Perhaps only Bhutan can rival Pyongyang's determined isolation. Yet where Bhutan has the Himalayas to keep foreign influence at bay, North Korea has developed a regime of fear of the outside world more effective than any embargo.
Kim II Sung's death in 1994 scuppered the previous serious attempt to open dialogue with the South. Power passed to Kim Jong II, the beneficiary of socialism's only hereditary succession. The third generation, Kim Yong Nam, is now being groomed in the Ministry of Public Security. After his father died, Kim Jong II maintained that "socialism will win in the end", though "we may die hundreds of billions of times." These were sadly prophetic words for the million Koreans who starved to death from natural disasters and poor harvests since 1995.
"This should be a rich country," an exasperated Chinese visitor told us. "If the North Koreans only reformed the economy like we did, they could over take the South in ten years, but the leaders are terrified of change." Our guide, Kim, blamed the US for prolonging Korea's division. "Reunification is the priority for our government and people. Then we can focus on the economy."
The authorities already seem to accept that revolutionary enthusiasm alone will not resolve frequent blackouts and restock desolate shops. Peasants are now permitted a sideline income from private farming, and - hold the front page! - biscuit stalls are flourishing on street corners. "They are run by neighbourhood collectives," our guide insisted, but business basics are at work in these cash transactions, not the government coupons that buy most commodities in this rent-free, tax-free land.
If the path to reunification quickens, the South Korean government faces a daunting challenge. The disparity between North and South is more severe than that between the old East and West Germany, while South Korea has nowhere near the funds that Bonn had to spare. The $100 green fee at the Pyongyang Golf Course (paid in greenbacks, thank you) is many times the monthly wage of most North Koreans. At least $100 billion will be required for infrastructure construction alone. Under Kim Dae-jung's 'Sunshine Policy', South Korean companies are testing the water, using cheap labour to assemble products from telephones to golf bags.
A stark warning to all potential foreign investors rises high above Pyongyang. While South Korea pumped 800,000 tons of concrete into the infamous Concrete Wall that bisects the peninsula below the 38th Parallel, creating the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), the North built vertically. The pyramidal Ryugyong Hotel stretches 323 metres high, with 105 stories and over 3,000 rooms, topped by five revolving restaurants. Yet it remains a mere concrete shell, because foreign funding retreated before the hotel was ever furnished.
The changes underway raise intriguing questions for the day the barbed wire finally comes down. Spared the vices of capitalism. North Korean society displays breathtaking innocence, albeit dressed to kill. What will become of the April pin-up in Korea Pictorial, Myong Kum Sun, the world record-holding grenade-thrower, when baseball moguls chase her lethal arm? How will the malnourished populace, raised on anti imperialism and photo paranoia, react to Japanese and Americans firing Nikons at will? Will McDonalds introduce consumerism and litter into the pristine Kim II Sung Square? Could Jack Nicklaus design a golf course amid the pot bunkers of the DMZ?
While North Korea remains golf's front line, not to mention the bastion of socialism, our minder drove south down Reunification Highway to show us the real thing. Two million North and South Korean soldiers, not forgetting 37,000 US troops, face off across the world's most infamous map reference, and the Cold War's most disturbing relic. The protagonists remain technically at war, for no peace deal followed the armistice of July 27,1953. The Panmunjom exhibition on the north side of the divide details how the US and South Korea precipitated the conflict by invading the North.
"Do you believe me?" smiled our affable soldier guide. "This must be different from what you have been taught."
The Korean proverb "Seeing is believing" explains why the DPRK bothers to grant any of its meagre total of visa approvals - only some 1,500 western visitors reach the country each year. You join an unusual club, with Pyongyang on your scorecard of world courses. Once you arrive, your guides will gorge you on kimchi (spiced pickled cabbage) and statistics. Proud of their land's survival against the odds, they want you, too, to believe.
I did my best until I discovered Casino Pyongyang and then I refused to believe my eyes. If golf is decadent to some, gambling must be downright immoral, and yet Asian cardsharps were risking hundreds of dollars inside the capital's top hotel. Finally, a croupier relieved my disbelief. He and fellow-graduates were imported last October from Dandong, across the Yalu River, to serve the rising numbers of Chinese tourists eager for a flutter but starved of such illicit pleasures back home. But at least Kim Jong II still keeps his citizens on the straight and narrow - North Koreans are forbidden entry.
After five days in the people's paradise, we had found no witnesses to corroborate the Dear Leader's miracle score in that celebrated round of golf. But just the thought of it inspired my own record score, albeit 72 strokes more than he had needed.
The seven million family members separated in the two Koreas are praying for another, more meaningful miracle this summer. Pyongyang may not remain Asia's emptiest golf course for long. Get there if you can.
Thinking of going?
Travel to North Korea, while highly restricted, is possible through a select number of travel agencies, some of which now offer golf tours. Plan well in advance, and consider visiting some sites and courses in China, too. Almost all travel to North Korea (by air or rail) goes via Beijing.
Golf Today Course Directory - Korea