Japanese golfer tests Pyongyang’s links to check dictator’s legendary score


Staff Writer

Who would have the temerity to challenge Kim Jong Il’s superhuman abilities?

Step forward 71-year-old Nobuaki Kasahara. For the past two decades the golfer has dreamed of matching the late North Korean leader’s purported but improbable record on the links.

In 1994, state media was reported to have said that Kim scored 38 under par and 11 holes in one over 18 holes in his first and only round at the Pyongyang golf club.

Kasahara, a golfer from Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture, got a chance to play those same holes after Japan announced in early July that it would ease unilateral sanctions on North Korea in response to a promised probe into the fates of Japanese citizens missing or presumed abducted.

Kasahara became one of the first Japanese nationals ever invited to North Korea to participate in the fourth Amateur Open Golf Tournament in Pyongyang. The competition was to take place at North Korea’s sole public golf course.

Kasahara said his “pioneering” feat could encourage others to visit North Korea.

“I think many people are curious about North Korea and wish they could visit it,” Kasahara told The Japan Times in a recent interview.

“Now as North Korea has opened a door to sports diplomacy, it’s a good time (to go) and I hope I can inspire others to follow.”

He also expressed belief that bilateral tensions may be softened through sport.

His visit to Pyongyang at the end of July preceded that of former pro wrestler and Diet member Antonio Inoki, who in late August convened an international wrestling tournament there.

Kasahara met up with several other foreign golfers in Beijing and they traveled together to the tournament, which took place on July 27 and 28.

He said North Korea seemed unremarkable, far “different from what you might have expected,” judging by news coverage of North Korea.

“I was really surprised that North Korea did not differ much from other countries, except for the military patrols in the streets,” he said.

He said he saw regular cornfields and people who seemed preoccupied with their own problems. If they were not yet ready to accept foreigners it was probably because they were “rather concerned about their own lives.”

The tournament was set up by U.K.-based travel agency Lupine Travel in 2011 and is held annually at the Pyongyang Golf Complex, roughly 27 km from the capital. The facility was designed and built by a Japanese company in 1987.

Kasahara said he applied every year, “but every time I was refused entry to North Korea, until this year.”

“And (this year) I received a phone call from a North Korean official but I have no idea whether he called from Japan or North Korea. He was fluent in Japanese.”

He said Kim Jong Il’s fabled hole-in-one record was a factor in his ambition. He wanted to see the 7,700-yard course where it supposedly happened and size up the odds for himself.

“Kim Jong Il’s unprecedented score is a mystery,” he said. “It’s hard for me to figure out how the scores were calculated,” he said, as making 11 aces over 18 holes with 38 under par appears to be impossible.

Kasahara is no stranger to worthy golfing achievements. He says he has made six holes in one. He admits he failed to sink one in North Korea, but at least came away with another record: He is the first Japanese to participate in and win the tournament with the top low-gross score, which refers to the total number of strokes played during a round of golf.

He defeated 14 players from six countries: Britain, Singapore, China, Estonia, the United States and North Korea.

He regrets, however, not having the opportunity to socialize with local residents, with whom only guides were allowed to communicate.

“The North Korean participants did not join us after the practice or the game,” he said.

As the tournament took place during celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice, the group was offered a glimpse of daily life in Pyongyang during a tour of the city where mass military parades took place.

“We took a ride on the Pyongyang Metro,” which North Korea says is the world’s deepest, 110 meters underground, he said. “But there were no locals on the train.” He also said he did not see many people on the streets. Especially absent were young people, which North Korea drafts into military service in their teens.

Having long had experience of working with foreigners, Kasahara believes it is communication that brings people closer together.

He said he hopes to compete in the tournament again next year and also to win a trophy in a tournament that Lupine Travel hopes to launch at a golf course near Mount Kumgang in 2015.