PYONGYANG — I don’t know who was more surprised, the caddie, the minder or myself. It was a pretty average tee shot, but a ricochet of applause had startled the birds from the trees. We were not alone after all. Waiting for us over the hill were dozens of Young Pioneers, beaming, red-scarved children, neatly lined up beside the green.
After holing out to my gallery’s delight, I reached for a camera. At last, some interaction with the locals. Then came the minder’s reminder — no photos of “ordinary people” please, nor at the next tee, thank you. That’s a military installation in the background.
The most exclusive golf club on the planet is not Pebble Beach, Augustus or St. Andrews. Protected by a million-strong land army, 10 years of international isolation, and a nuclear threat that keeps Asia on edge, the Pyongyang Golf Course offers a golfing experience like no other worldwide.
The course record is pretty otherworldly too. During his maiden round at North Korea’s only golf facility over 10 years ago, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il opened with a hole in one, and required just 18 further strokes to finish the Par 72 course. He only missed the ultimate score card by taking two at the Par Five 18th.
In the not so Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, nothing can be taken at face value. Half the news that escapes the hermit kingdom is hearsay, the rest mostly rumor. As a fan of golf and the bizarre, I longed to visit the scene of Kim’s miracle. Granted a business visa last month, I seized the chance just ahead of the border’s closure amid summit security paranoia.
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 snatch a peek at this people’s paradise, you must leave your cellphone behind at customs, your disbelief too, and don’t even dream of Internet access, for you are entering a truly alternative society.
With obligatory government minder in tow, we drove 40 km from downtown Pyongyang past “shock brigades” of teenagers breaking rocks to build a highway. On reaching Lake Thaesong, rumors about the course proved well founded. The world’s most hardline 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 reminded players “Generalissimo Kim Il 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. My minder and I spent the next 15 minutes assaulting locked doors until we roused a caddy from her nap. The land of morning calm is an appropriate home for Asia’s emptiest golf course. Bar the Young Pioneers, making good use of empty fairways, we were alone, under an hour from a city of 2 million.
Then again, the caddy praised me for avoiding the weekend rush — four players on Saturdays, and up to eight on Sundays. The identity of this select membership remains a mystery: a few top brass, some Chinese and the Japanese-Koreans who financed and built the course for their regular trips home, suitcases laden with yen for poor relatives.
One hopes the caddies are more alert this month. Whether or not the two Kims, Jong Il and Dae Jung, lock putters at the first presidential talks between North and South, Pyongyang will also welcome 50 Korean-American professionals June 12-13 to its first golf tournament featuring foreigners. Just as “Ping Pong diplomacy” paved the way for Sino-U.S. talks in the 1970s, perhaps golf may help to bridge the divisions of half a century.
The visitors will find the verdant course, rich in cherry trees and forsythia, a world away from monumentalist Pyongyang. Given the privations of the nation at large, course maintenance is remarkable. Those paths are not worn by golfers, but herds of goats, locals hunting firewood or edible roots, and the occasional wandering soldier that is part and parcel of the DPRK landscape. Compared to the revolutionary sites that fill most itineraries, a round here is as apolitical as North Korea gets — caddies conceal the ubiquitous Kim Il 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. Like the hordes of local pilgrims, all foreign visitors are expected to bow before their gargantuan statues. Instead of advertising, billboards shout their slogans. Their solemn portraits adorn every home, office and metro car, with graffiti an unknown art. The media gushes news of Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia flower festivals, celebrating the orchid and begonia honored above all.
Forget Y2K, this is Juche 89. The Georgian calendar has been sidelined by the Juche Era from 1912, in honor of Kim Senior’s birth and his ideology of self-reliance. In recent years, self-reliance has been a virtue born more of necessity, after that “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.
“This should be a rich country!” an exasperated Chinese visitor told me. “If it only reformed the economy like we did, North Korea could overtake the South in 10 years, but the leaders are terrified of change.” They now appear to accept that revolutionary enthusiasm alone will not resolve frequent blackouts or restock desolate shops. Peasants are permitted sideline incomes from private farming, investment from the South is rising, and, hold the front page, biscuit stalls flourish on street corners. “They are run by neighborhood collectives,” insisted my guide, 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.
By North Korean standards, the new millennium (sorry, Juche 89) has witnessed a flurry of activity. Italy and Australia have established diplomatic relations, South Korea secured the summit, and Kim Jong Il stole into Peking last week on his first trip abroad for 17 years. Even golf is playing its part — if the tournament is a success, more facilities may be built, and travel restrictions eased, to attract foreign wallets. A nine-hole pitch-and-putt will soon open at Pyongyang’s top hotel, to complement an excellent driving range. Again, I was alone on the range, in perhaps the only Asian capital bereft of executives honing their games.
The changes under way 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 Korea Pictorial’s pin-up Myong Kum Sun, world record holding grenade-thrower, when baseball moguls chase her lethal arm? How will a people raised on photo paranoia react to Japanese and Americans firing Nikons at will?
While the American military presence in the south remains the key obstacle to reunification, one is tempted to suggest Clinton withdraws his troops, and relies solely on “culture.” Forget the marines, let Mickey Mouse tear down half a century of propaganda, while McDonalds and Starbucks bring litter and lattes to pristine Pyongyang.
If North Korea remains golf’s front line, my minder drove south to the Demilitarized Zone to show me the real thing. Two million North and South Korean soldiers, not forgetting 37,000 U.S. troops, face off across the world’s most infamous map reference, and the Cold War’s most disturbing relic. The Panmunjom exhibition details how the U.S. and South Korea precipitated the Korean War by invading the North. “Do you believe me?” smiled the affable soldier guide. “This must be different from what you have been taught.”
The local proverb, “Seeing is believing,” explains why the DPRK bothers granting any of its meager 1,500 tourist visas issued annually to Western travelers — you join an unusual club with Pyongyang on your score card of world courses. English-speaking guides, friendly even when prohibiting photography, gorge visitors on kimchi 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 refused to believe my eyes. If golf is decadent, gambling is downright immoral, and yet Asian cardsharps were risking hundreds of dollars inside the capital’s top hotel. Finally a Chinese croupier relieved my disbelief. He and fellow graduates from Dandong were imported across the Yalu River last October to serve rising numbers of Chinese tourists. Kim Jong Il still keeps his citizens on the straight and narrow — North Koreans are forbidden entry.
After five days in the people’s paradise, I had found no witnesses to corroborate the Dear Leader’s miracle. But just the thought of it inspired my own record score, only 72 more strokes than Kim needed. The 7 million family members separated in the two Koreas are praying for another, more meaningful miracle this month. Pyongyang may not remain Asia’s emptiest course for long.