“You da mandarin!”
The Brits were cheering the second secretary. A trim, bespectacled diplomat in electric-blue golf togs, the second secretary—Mongolia’s deputy ambassador to North Korea—laced his drive around a dogleg toward a herd of scrawny goats. He pumped his fist while the Brits, Alex and Simon, hailed him with sprays of Korean lager and shouts of “You da mandarin” and “You da Manchurian,” until somebody said that mandarins and Manchurians are Chinese, not Mongolian.
The beery Brits took that in. “Very well then,” Alex said. “You da Mongolian!”
The second secretary bowed. “Crazy boys, I love your ass,” he said. Or words to that effect—I was distracted by the beauty-pageant winner who was buffing my balls. She was my caddie, Sun-Yi. We were next up in the 2012 Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Amateur Golf Open, the biggest golfing event in the unfree world, and I needed my A game. To catch the leaders I’d have to make a run at late dictator Kim Jong Il’s course record of 11 holes in one.
Fifteen golfers had come to North Korea: from Hong Kong and Dongguan in China, from Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, from Australia, New Zealand, England, Finland and the United States. Some flew to Beijing and rode an overnight train that creaked through 100 miles of desolate North Korean countryside where the electricity might work for an hour a day. I caught a 15-hour flight from JFK in New York to Seoul, South Korea, followed by a two-hour flight to Shenyang, China and then a short flight on state-owned Air Koryo to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. It would have been simpler to fly the 120 miles from Seoul to Pyongyang, but commercial airlines detour around North Korean airspace to avoid getting shot down.
As the world’s last Stalinist dictatorship, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a relic of the Cold War. After World War II freed Korea from Japanese occupation, Russia took over the northern half of the country, while the U.S. ran the southern half. Today prosperous, golf-crazy South Korea buzzes with commerce, Russia and China embrace their own forms of moneygrubbing, and even Cuba chases tourist dollars. But the DPRK sticks to grim, stone-faced totalitarianism. Only a handful of Westerners are allowed in each year. The regime views them—us—as likely spies, and while getting into the country was easy, there were no guarantees about getting out. An American soldier who defected to North Korea in 1962 tried to leave in 1966. Forty-six years later he’s still in Pyongyang.
As suspected spies we surrendered our cell phones to a soldier at the airport. We were assigned a tour guide who confiscated our passports and a minder whose job was to keep an eye on us. There would be no Wi-Fi during our visit to Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un’s locked-down land, no internet and not much TV except for state-approved channels that played military music. One golfer who glimpsed a shot of Barack and Michelle Obama holding hands on TV called it North Korean porn.
It wasn’t the best week to arrive. Cash-strapped North Korea had recently launched a satellite that experts compared to a dishwasher wrapped in duct tape. It fell apart in flight—a global embarrassment. Aerial photos revealed that the regime had resumed building a nuclear reactor—a global provocation. The day I arrived, a U.S. general admitted to parachuting real spies into North Korea. The Pyongyang Times railed against imperialist America, calling the U.S. “a criminal state” and “the ringleader of man-killing.” A Frommer’s travel guide I left in a Shenyang trash can placed North Korea atop its list of dangerous nations. Under “Places to Avoid,” it read, “the entire country.”
But tour planner Dylan Harris, a shaggy-haired Englishman who runs a firm called Lupine Travel, swore I’d be safe behind the Bamboo Curtain. After almost a decade of dealing with North Korea’s secretive government, he knew which palms to grease. The regime was as hungry for hard currency as its people were for rice. Fifteen hundred capitalist dollars per golfer and we were in.
So damn the satellites. Let’s launch some Pro-Vs!
Above: The writer with his caddie, Sun-Yi.
On day one of our invasion of the Democratic People’s Republic, a dozen pasty golfers gathered on the communist side of the DMZ between North Korea and South Korea, the most dangerous border on earth. More than 500 soldiers have died in various skirmishes at the DMZ, a two-mile-wide stretch of barbed and electrified fences, observation towers and minefields. In 1976 a North Korean lieutenant attacked American soldiers trimming a poplar in the DMZ, plunging a hatchet into a U.S. captain’s neck. (In North Korea’s account, border guards “confronted U.S. troops, daringly catching a flying ax thrown by the enemy.”) Two Americans died.
Our minders led a friendlier tour of the International Friendship Exhibition at Mount Myohyang, where 90,000 gifts attest to the world’s affection for North Korean founding father Kim Il Sung, his late son (the golfing commandant) Kim Jong Il and his son, 28-year-old Kim Jong Un, who became the planet’s youngest head of state when he took over last year. The gift museum held a bulletproof limousine—a present from Joseph Stalin to Kim Il Sung—as well as a railway car from Mao Tse-tung, an East German tank, a bear’s head from Romanian tyrant Nicolae Ceaușescu and, from the Sandinistas of Nicaragua, a stuffed crocodile standing on its hind legs, holding a tray of drinks. America gave a basketball signed by Michael Jordan. The ball led our minder, Mr. Liu [some names have been changed], to ask where we were from.
“America,” admitted Josh, the wiseass in the bunch, a sweet-swinging six-handicapper working undercover for Golf Magazine. “Land of Michael Jordan.”
Mr. Liu said, “Down with America!” Which made everyone a little uneasy until he cracked up.
Exhausted, we finally landed at our hotel. A 47-floor tower on an island in the Taedong River, the Yanggakdo International Hotel is the tallest habitable building in North Korea. I say “habitable” because the Yanggakdo is dwarfed by another nearby building, the empty Ryugyong Hotel. Looming over Pyongyang like a 1,000-foot alien rocket, the 105-story Ryugyong was meant to be the nation’s showplace, the tallest hotel in the world. But Russian financing fell through. Twenty-five years after construction began, the Ryugyong stands deserted. It appears on no maps. It’s bad form to mention its name. Until recently the regime denied its existence even as the so-called Hotel of Doom cast a mile-long shadow over the capital city.
“Can’t see a thing,” Simon said, staring right at it. “Anyway, our crib’s superior.”
He was right. Aside from its arm-biting elevators, the Yanggakdo tops most Hiltons. We spent our euros, the preferred imperialist currency, in a subterranean floor featuring a bar, swimming pool, casino, barbershop, massage therapist, billiard and Ping-Pong tables and a three-lane bowling alley. The rest of the hotel was mostly off-limits, with Westerners restricted to a few VIP floors where the rooms were said to be bugged. We were especially not allowed on the fifth floor, which was said to be the spies’ floor, where eavesdroppers listen in on the VIP floors above.
Mr. Liu and his colleague Miss Song monitored our movements. The gifts we presented them—cartons of Marlboros for him, chocolates for her—made them rich compared with most North Koreans. Mr. Liu told me I was free to jog up and down the river island but not to cross the bridge that led to the rest of Pyongyang. “Soldiers will stop you,” he said. In 2008, when a South Korean woman wandered away from her tour group, a North Korean sentry shot her in the head.
We looked bloody conspicuous in our Titleist and TaylorMade caps, taking practice swings outside our hotel the night before the second annual DPRK Amateur Golf Open. Later, toasting our grim-faced hosts over beers, grayish vodka and several more beers, Josh filled us in on North Korea’s golf history. It consists mainly of one tall tale: In 1994, dictator Kim Jong Il teed up at the course we would play the next morning. It was his first round of golf, witnessed by 17 armed guards and members of the regime’s media office. And according to every last witness, the so-called Dear Leader made a hole in one that day. And then he made 10 more. He finished 38 under par for 18 holes, with 11 aces—the best round in golf history. The dictator’s score was more than 20 strokes better than any other round anybody ever shot.
Lying in bed that night, I couldn’t help thinking that a golf tournament was a pretty stupid reason to fly halfway around the world to a place you might never escape. The only stupider thing would be to fly halfway around the world to a golf tournament and lose.
I had come to win.