Sports have a way of transcending political and cultural differences. The 1995 Rugby World Cup (on which the excellent movie Invictus was based). The 1970s exchange of table tennis players between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. The 2005 “Cricket Summit” between India and Pakistan. The North Korean Amateur Open?
That last event hasn’t happened yet. But it will on April 29th, 2011. And if you are anything approximating a decent golfer can participate!
The Hermit Kingdom’s first ever international golf tournament will take place at the Taesongsan golf course, nestled next to an artificial lake outside the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. The course is a personal favorite of the North Korean leader Kim Jung-Il despite the fact that, according to state propaganda, he failed to get a hole-in-one on 7 of its 18 holes the first time he played there.
Taesongsan is not North Korea’s only golf course (as some media reports claim). There are a few others scattered around the country, mostly at exclusive military resorts and at special enclaves for South Korean and Chinese businessmen. But the Pyongyang course is North Korea’s only that meets international tournament standards and the only that’s open to the public. “Open to the public” being a relative term in North Korea; in a country where the average person earns US$47 per month a membership to Pyongyang’s golf club runs US$10,000 a year.
As surreal as the experience of golfing in quirky North Korea would be, it might not be the main reason to join the North Korean Amateur Open. Event participants also have an opportunity to glimpse a country few outsiders get to see. That’s because they all travel on a tour organized by England’s Lupine Travel. The four-day tour features visits to such misnamed places as the International Friendship Exhibition Hall (a building where extravagant gifts bestowed upon North Korea’s dictators are displayed) and Friendship Village (a tense spot in the demilitarized zone where North and South Korean soldiers stare each other down). The tour’s £849 price includes a visa and train transportation to and from China.
So consider golfing in North Korea. Its amateur open might be your way into a country that’s usually closed.
If you go: As with all North Korean tours, everything is choreographed to show you the best the country has to offer. The tour digs, the surprisingly posh Yanggakdo Hotel, is on an island in Pyongyang specifically prevent guests from wandering too far. If you are looking for a close-up look of a more traditional North Korean scene head to the 5th floor of the Yanggakdo—the elevator won’t stop there but you can get there via the emergency stairs.