Planet GolfJanuary 20, 2011

Golfing in the Heart of Darkness

A strange journey, with clubs, to 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.

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.

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."

The golf course, 25 miles from Pyongyang down a deserted eight-lane highway, was built and financed by Japanese-Koreans, and completed in 1987, in commemoration of Kim Il Sung's 75th birthday. Today, like every other day, it was almost empty. I asked the two Koreans in our foursome, Mr. Kim and Mr. Jong, who was the best golfer in the Democratic People's Republic. Mr. Kim pointed at Mr. Jong. Mr. Jong pointed at Mr. Kim. Both had once shot a best-ever round of 82.

They did say a Korean owns the course record of 71, one under par, but that was years ago. "We don't see him anymore," said Mr. Kim. "He is older. Or dead, maybe." (They clearly hadn't heard of the Dear Leader's miraculous 34.)

Mr. Kim is vice chairman of some kind of foreign trade association and has traveled all over the world, picking up a powerful golf swing along the way. Mr. Jong is the manager of the nation's only other golf course, the devilishly difficult nine-hole Yanggakdo pitch-and-putt in downtown Pyongyang, which he said he personally laid out two years ago. Mr. Kim and Mr. Jong are the fortunate ones, the chosen few among the nation's 23 million people. I asked them, and the British Ambassador, how many golfers there were in the entire country, including foreign diplomats, businessmen and aid workers. They agreed the total would be fewer than 50.

The fairways were shaggy, the greens were slow, and the flagsticks were the bendy white plastic kind, except on two holes that had no flagstick at all (which perversely improved one's aim). At one point the proceedings came to a halt when a herd of giant goats invaded one of the fairways, hotly pursued by a lady shepherd. But the course is magnificent, meandering amid pine, cherry and apricot trees and bursts of forsythia on the gentle hills between Mount Sokchon and the shores of Lake Taesung. As the helpful brochure "Golfers, Come to Korea!" states, "Each of the 18 holes is arranged in a unique way." Our female caddies, who spend most of their days working the fields, were beautiful, sleek, impeccably demure. It was a magical experience. With a bit of spit and polish, Pyongyang Golf Course could stand alongside any number of famous layouts in the West.

The tournament was conducted over the front nine only because Slinn had to get back to town for an important lunch appointment. We had a couple of beers in the clubhouse, then said farewell. The deserted clubhouse was plunged into darkness by a power cut, a frequent occurrence in these parts. The Koreans had vanished. A huge storm struck up outside. I sat alone in the dark, drinking warm South African lager, wondering what on earth had become of the second foursome. An hour passed. The rain hammered down. Then the door finally burst open, and three grinning Englishmen and a Korean appeared, comprehensively bedraggled but in fine fettle despite losing 31 golf balls among them--almost one per man per hole.

Mr. Pak, a 19-year-old English-literature student and a friend of Mr. Kim, said he very much liked his first go at golf and was pleased with his nine-hole score of 82 (he's a convert: he now plays every week). He'd enjoyed talking Shakespeare with Simon, the low man of the foursome (62), including a lively debate about the presence or otherwise of anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice. But Mr. Pak is not really a fan of Shakespeare. "I have to read it, but I don't like it," he told us over lunch. "I like Dickens much better. But best of all is Sidney Sheldon. I love Sidney Sheldon books."

When we weren't playing golf, we hit all the tourist sights. We went to the top of the impressive Tower of the Juche Idea, opened to coincide with the Great Leader's 70th birthday, commemorating his nationally instilled, quasi-Marxist philosophy of self-reliance (juche means "master oneself"). We went to the Korean Folklore Museum, where the lady who showed us around made sure to point out the objects that had been viewed by the Great Leader on a visit 40 years earlier. We rode the Pyongyang metro, whose cavernous stations are lavished in marble, and whose trains, which used to rumble beneath the streets of East Berlin, bear portraits of the Kims in every carriage. We gawped at the 150,000-seat May Day Stadium, which we were told is the biggest in the world. We saw Pyongyang's first glimpse of a new and different world: a billboard, less than a year old, advertising a car, one result of modest economic reforms in 2002. We toured the U.S.S. Pueblo, an American spy ship captured in 1968. We attended an outdoor wrestling match where the first prize, a golden ox, was tied to a nearby tree.

We went for drinks in a revolving restaurant on the 47th floor of a downtown hotel where, high above the dark and silent city, one of the lady bartenders played the piano as a Korean man sang mournful songs about separation, missing brothers and sisters, hopes for reunification. We went to a bookshop, where most of the books were either by or about the Leaders Great and Dear, and where, paying in euros and receiving change in postcards and chewing gum, I purchased a slim volume entitled U.S.--The Empire of Terrorism. We went to the Pyongyang School Children's Palace to take in an astounding talent show, performed with perfect smiles, military precision and revolutionary zeal, including a segment where a phalanx of girls swayed in collective harmony as they played the oungum, a mandolin-like instrument that, said the guide, "was personally designed by Kim Jong II in the 1960s."

We visited the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, and the uniformed guide, wearing her Kim button on her lapel like every good comrade, explained that it was the "American aggressors" who started the Korean War. We marveled at Pyongyang's brutal modernist architecture, and rode through the spotless, centrally planned streets, strangely bereft of the usual choking, exuberant tide of humanity. We went to Mansudae Hill, where old men leave flowers at the foot of the giant bronze statue of the Great Leader, and weep openly, even though the official three-year mourning period ended in 1997.

We took a stroll in a park--the guide said most of the people there had never seen a Westerner before--and came upon a group of grandmothers who meet regularly to dance together in an open-air pavilion on a hill. Despite it all, the grandmothers danced with great dignity. Like everyone we met, they were friendly and funny, and the Westerners, of course, were required to join in the dance.

The lowlight of any trip to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, however, is a visit to the DMZ: the demilitarized zone. You drive south from Pyongyang for two hours, past various patriotic messages on the hillsides that line the deserted highway ("One Heart Nation!"), past the ancient Korean capital of Kaesong, past a road sign that says: "Seoul 70km." Then there are endless concrete fortifications, watchtowers, razor-wire fences and military checkpoints before you arrive at the gift shop, where you can buy a bottle of snake liquor with a real dead adder inside, and a DMZ guidebook that opens with the words: "Wipe out the U.S. imperialist aggressors, the sworn enemy of the Korean people!" Then you are escorted into the great divide itself, past the peaceful rice and ginseng fields, to Panmunjom, a clearing in the DMZ where the two sides come face to face. A series of small, sky-blue wooden huts used for "talks" straddle the border (exactly half of the main conference table is in North Korea, half in South Korea). American soldiers pointed giant binoculars at us and took photos from the windows of their observation building. We took photos of them. Today it was a quiet scene, but not far away, a terrifying number of troops, weapons and missiles--the bad kind and the really bad kind--are lined up on either side in an obscene, perpetual standoff of fear and loathing. Bill Clinton called this the scariest place on earth.

From the year 668, the Korean peninsula had been more or less united. In August 1945, on the other side of the world in Washington, D.C., it was split in two with the stroke of a bureaucrat's pen across a map. The 38th parallel is a wound that has spilled much blood since then. Between 1950 and 1953, North Korea was flattened by an almost constant downpour of American bombs, including a million gallons of napalm. Scorched earth. Shock and awe. Millions dead. Forgotten war.

The DMZ, this grotesque, last frontier of the Cold War, is eventually bound to become obsolete, one way or another. It will be dismantled, and its remains will be just another curious tourist oddment, a relic of a different, incomprehensible time. Another monument to human misadventure.

Back at the clubhouse of the Pyongyang Golf Course, these things were discussed over lunch, along with the novels of Sidney Sheldon. Soup and fish were consumed, beer was downed, scorecards were tallied. (No need specifically to point out here that, with a front-nine score of 43, seven over par, the North Korean Open was won by the man from Golf Digest.) The rain finally stopped. The back nine beckoned.

There was a sense of optimism in the air, not just about the afternoon's weather, but the weather in general. A couple of weeks earlier, both the North and the South had agreed to remove their loudspeakers that for decades were lined up along the DMZ, blaring propaganda at each other--a 50-year shouting match was over. The "Sunshine Policy" of engagement and reconciliation, initiated by former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, offers promise (it earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000). The third round of the "six-party talks," featuring North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the U.S., was going on in Beijing at the same time as our little day of golf diplomacy, the two-party North Korean Open. Perhaps everyone can learn how to play ball.

At the airport we said farewell to our guides. "It is always so good to see the imperialists flying away from our country," said one with a chuckle as we shook hands. "Come back next year."


The North Korean Open was organized by Beijing-based Koryo Tours (

), operated by Englishmen Nick Bonner, who has made more than 100 trips to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea since 1993, and Simon Cockerell. For information about the 2005 event, June 4-8, or other travel to the DPRK, you can e-mail

For information on--and to give donations to--the World Food Programme, go to