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(Yonhap Feature) Golf genius Kim is gone, but NK tournament remains

By Bryan Kay
Contributing writer
SEOUL, Jan. 25 (Yonhap) -- Even the fairytale rise to implausible golfing kingship depicted in the Hollywood blockbuster "Happy Gilmore" doesn't come close to the storybook achievements of Kim Jong-il, the late North Korean leader who died last month.

   North Korean legend has it that, on his maiden round, the country's No. 1 man blew away even the earthly brilliance of golf greats Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as he carded, wait for it, 11 holes-in-one.

   Now, the scene of "Dear Leader" Kim's astonishing feat has been opened up to an entirely different field of mere mortals. At the DPRK (short for Democratic People's Republic of Korea, North Korea's official name) Amateur Golf Open, green-lighted to be played over three days for the first time this year, any golfer with the wherewithal to make it to Pyongyang Golf Course is eligible to make the cut for opening play on sacred ground.

South Africa's Rick Poole attempts a putt during the inaugural DPRK Open in April 2011 as other competitors look on. (Courtesy of Lupine Travel)

The unlikely new fixture on the golfing calendar -- obscure and esoteric as it may be -- may never have come about were it not for an inquiry borne of curiosity by a British adventure tourist.

   "I was contacted by a client in the summer of 2010 asking if he could go to North Korea and play golf," explains Dylan Harris, whose England-based Lupine Travel company organized the inaugural event last year. "I knew there was a golf course there available for mainly foreign consular staff, but my initial thoughts were that it would be impossible for tourists to use. Up until this point, the tours I was able to arrange kept to a very strict itinerary and nothing other than the usual tourist path was allowed."

The two winners of DPRK golf tournament -- Ollie Lehtonen (L), of Finland, who won the Callaway format, and Johannes Raitio, also of Finland, the overall gross joint winner with Lehtonen.

Group shot of most of the foreign golfers and their caddies

Harris, though, elected to go against his better judgment and asked North Korean officials about the possibility. "I decided to ask anyway, just to see the reaction, which I expected to be a big, resounding 'no,'" he says. "Surprisingly, not only did they say, 'yes' that he could come and play golf, but they also broached the idea of a tournament."

   To his surprise, the first-ever DPRK Open took place in April, without a single glitch, Harris insists. Relatively low-key, it took the form of a one-day event and was composed of a field of golfers hailing from countries as diverse as the U.S., South Africa, Britain, Finland, Australia, and, of course, North Korea.

   One of North Korea's latest attempts at detente, the use of golf to entice a new branch of tourists represents another departure from decades in the shadows as a notorious recluse.

   Normally a reluctant and somewhat inhospitable host to guests, the North is now desperate for foreign currency amid a cut in aid and reportedly crippling food shortages. This time, officials are likely to face the challenge of striking a balance between tapping the market of adventure tourists and ensuring the visitors gain little access to locals.

   This year's tournament, set for May, could see more than double the number of entrants as last year after Pyongyang gave Harris the thumbs-up in August for an expansion.

   But the world of golf is not the only arena in which the North is active in bidding to attract overseas visitors.

   One involves a secluded resort at Mount Kumgang, situated on the North's eastern coast near its border with South Korea. The North Korean authorities have been touting the site as an investment opportunity to potential international suitors, including the Chinese, much to the dismay of the South. The resort, which is home to another of the few golf courses in the country, was built using South Korean cash and had been jointly run by the two states until a tourist from the South was shot and killed by a North Korean soldier in 2008.

   Elsewhere, the North has launched a cruise liner. Setting off on its first voyage from the country's northeastern port of Rason last summer, the ship, named the Mangyongbong, is unlikely to worry the household names of the cruising world: It weighs in at 40 years old, offers cramped rooms, puts on a spread of reportedly low-grade culinary offerings and is allegedly home to some dubious sanitary conditions.

   Harris, though, harbors high hopes for the golf tournament. Despite being shrouded by uncertainty, the 2011 event, he said, was a success. "I was convinced that there would be many mishaps on the day of the event, just because communication was so hard working at it from the U.K., and I had to take the North Koreans word for it that everything would be ready on arrival," he recalls. "But it went like clockwork."

Lupine Travel owner Dylan Harris giving an introduction to the tournament at the launch. The guide and translator, Mr. Han, translated his speech into Korean.

Harris is committed to the belief such contact with the North in the sporting arena could reap better relations with the outside world. "Ignoring the country is not going to help anybody," he muses. "I think engaging with them is the best way forward."

   Yet, reminders of the tense atmosphere that pervades the secretive state were not far away during its maiden run. Englishman Ian Garner, who will take part in this year's competition as tournament director, painted a surreal picture of the course environment.
"The golf course wasn't designed as well as courses on the amateur circuits in Europe and America," he says. "It was about the experience -- the experience of soldiers patrolling the course, the experience of playing in a country that is so closed to the rest of the world."