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Golfing in the Heart of Darkness

A strange journey, with clubs, to North Korea

North Korea

Clockwise from top left: The devilish par-3 Yanggakdo course; Pyongyang propaganda; North Korea's first Open gets underway; nothing to laugh about at the DMZ.

May 2005

The entire field for the first North Korean Open had gathered for an impromptu picnic breakfast on the steps of the clubhouse at Pyongyang Golf Course, where a decade ago the nation's "Dear Leader," Kim Jong II, is said to have shot a 34 in his one and only round of golf--including five holes-in-one.

Everyone was in high spirits, not just because of the beautiful, beckoning golf course, but because we were about to embark on something vaguely historical, a great leap forward of a sporting kind. Five Brits and three Koreans were vying for the title, mostly terrible golfers including at least one who had never played before. We tucked into makeshift cheese and tomato sandwiches, content in the knowledge that, however badly we performed, the worst any of us could do was finish eighth. "This is great," said the British Ambassador, David Slinn, who added some much-needed legitimacy to the proceedings. "It reminds me of a couple of years ago, when I got to the quarterfinals of the first-ever tennis tournament in Mongolia."

We'd arrived in Pyongyang a few days before, after a bouncy 90-minute flight from Beijing aboard an antique Soviet Ilyushin-62 jet, with original fixtures and fittings. In the seat pocket, next to the sick bag ("For Your Refuses"), was a copy of The Pyongyang Times, whose front page was largely devoted to Kim Jong II's recent visit to a factory. "He was very pleased to see that the workers of the factory who are boundlessly loyal to the Party and revolution are making brilliant achievements daily in the Herculean undertaking of building a great prosperous powerful nation ..."--and so on. A later page was entirely devoted to photos of "atrocities committed by U.S. troops in south Korea." The Korean War, known in the West as the Forgotten War, is not forgotten here. It's still going on.

Almost everyone on the plane was an aid worker. The man from UNESCO had food spilled on his shoe because the flight attendants don't always bother to sit down during turbulence, nor indeed takeoff and landing. The man from the European Community Humanitarian Office had a bale of steel wool for carry-on luggage. As we waited at passport control in the Pyongyang airport terminal, I talked to a woman from Montreal who works for the World Food Programme, returning from leave with a Beijing Ikea shopping bag stuffed with chipboard shelving. She described the heartbreaking scenes she'd witnessed in the hinterlands. (After the terrible floods, drought and famines of the 1990s, not to mention the end of the Soviet Union and its big-brother subsidies, malnutrition is now widespread.) Then she asked what I was doing in North Korea.

"We're here to play golf," I said.

She walked away.

We'd arrived on a national holiday, the 40th anniversary of Kim Jong II's first day of work at the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, and we were taken to a flower show to commemorate this momentous occasion. There were only two kinds of flowers on display: the red begonia favored (if not quite personally ordained) by Kim Jong II, known as the Kimjongilia, and the purple orchid Kimilsungia, named for his father, the late "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung, the nation's eternal president, the world's only dead head of state. Towering above the endless rows of pristine petals were giant, illuminated photographs of the Kims in various poses: standing heroically on a mountain peak, greeting grateful workers on a plantation, smiling alongside startled ostriches at the zoo.

There were more festivities that night. We headed to Kim Il Sung Square, packed with 15,000 people, mostly beautiful women in brightly colored swirling dresses, performing a series of complex formation dances beneath a giant portrait of Kim Il Sung on one side of the square, and Marx and Lenin on the other. Inevitably, the clumsy Westerners were invited to join in, and were thus witness to the surreal spectacle of thousands of soldiers in the bleachers--part of the million-man North Korean army--all standing to attention in full military regalia, laughing themselves silly at such wrong-footed ineptitude.

"Most of those girls were really friendly," said one of the Englishmen on the way back to the hotel. "But a few were unfriendly."

One of our guides laughed. "Those are the ones that know what filthy imperialists you are," he said.

The first North Korean Open got underway beneath gray skies when the British Ambassador nobbled one off the first tee into the bushes. Technically, perhaps, it wasn't really the North Korean Open. The country's proper name is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and it's a place that can hardly be described as "open." Americans aren't welcome here, and anyway, on this day the world's best golfers were otherwise engaged on the other side of the world, in the last round of the U.S. Open. We did not have the blessing of any recognized golfing body; nor were any blazered officials on hand to officiate in the event of any rules to-dos. There were no scoreboards, spectators, slick TV presenters or any of the other trappings of a real national championship. But the North Korean Open is what we nevertheless proclaimed it to be, and no one appeared from the undergrowth to raise any just impediment.

As we walked down the first fairway, I asked Slinn if he'd heard the story of Kim Jong II's 38-under-par round of 34.

"Oh, yes," said the British Ambassador. "There are so many stories. There's a bowling alley in downtown Pyongyang with a bowling ball on display that they say he used for his only ever game of bowls. And of course, he had a perfect score."

Slinn was 18 months into a three-year posting, after nine years in the Balkans. I wondered how he'd ended up here. "I wanted to come," he said. "For every diplomat who wants to sit at a desk in Rome or New York, there are people like me who'd rather be in the distant outposts. I love it here. I'll be heartbroken on the day I have to leave."

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