The Loop

The Loop

A surreal golf trip to North Korea revisited

January 24, 2011

In the summer of 2004 I flew to Pyongyang, a city the color of damp concrete, for what was laughingly described as the first ever North Korean Open (organized by Beijing-based Koryo Tours). The eight-man field included at least three nongolfers, three North Koreans, the British ambassador, and me. I've been on many trips, but North Korea has to be the strangest, most secretive, repressed and otherworldly destination on earth (read John Barton's May 2005 story from Golf Digest, "Golfing in the Heart of Darkness").

(Photos by John Barton)

As other former and current communist countries have opened up economically, socially and culturally, to a greater or lesser degree, inside North Korea, the heart of darkness, nothing ever seems to change. Kim Jong-un is said to be ready to take over the nation's dictatorship from his ailing father, Kim "dear leader" Jong-Il (whose own father, Kim "great leader" Il Sung, died in 1994 but is still regarded as the head of state). The DMZ -- the demilitarized zone separating North Koreans from their southern brethren -- remains the Cold War's last frontier, where the two sides face off in an eternal, horrifying stalemate. There are the usual periodic provocations, like the deadly shelling by the North of the South's Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010. The dynamic between the US and South Korea to North Korea remains that of despairing parents to recalcitrant child.

As far as golf is concerned, there are currently three main courses in North Korea. There's the lovely Pyongyang, where the "North Korean Open" was played. There's a downtown nine-hole pitch and putt called Yanggakdo. And there's the extraordinary "six-star" Ananti Golf & Spa Resort in the scenic Kumgang tourist area, whose 7,454-yard course boasts a 1,016-yard par-6 hole and a 252-yard hole with a "funnel" green that ushers approach shots toward the hole. The resort opened in May 2008 but closed a couple of months later - indefinitely -- after a South Korean tourist was shot dead by North Korean guards.

There's talk of another North Korean Open in 2011. But don't expect a truly open, legitimate, full-field championship anytime soon.

-- *John Barton