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When is a golf tournament not just a tournament? When it's in North Korea.

Mao Zedong's 'ping-pong diplomacy' thawed Chinese-US ties. Could Kim Jong-il's 'golf club diplomacy' do the same for North Korean-US relations?

By Bryan KayCorrespondent / October 4, 2011

In this photo taken last month, visitors enjoy the manicured lawn of the South Korean invested golf course in the Mount Kumgang resort in North Korea. The famously isolationist country is attempting to entice new tourists with golf resorts and tournaments.

Ng Han Guan/AP/File

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Seoul, South Korea

Call it "golf club diplomacy." North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s latest charm offensive involves a golf tournament, open to one of his country’s rarest sights: outsiders.

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Mr. Kim may well be taking a page from 1971. That's when Mao Zedong, then leader of Communist China, famously invited American table tennis players to his country for a series of matches against local stars of the game. The move, later labeled “ping-pong diplomacy,” led to a thaw in Chinese-US relations.

North Korea's latest attempt at detente – the use of golf to entice a new branch of tourists – represents a departure from decades in the shadows as a notorious recluse. Desperate for foreign currency amid a cut in aid and reportedly crippling food shortages, the unlikely quest for foreign visitors, say observers, will mean striking a balance between tapping the market of adventure tourists and ensuring the visitors gain as little access to locals as possible.

North Korea recently gave the green light for the tournament, dubbed the DPRK Amateur Golf Open, to take place in next May at the Pyongyang Golf Course, which is about 27 kilometers from the capital and next to a military range. Not incidentally, this is the very golf course where Kim Jong-il's is said to have scored a "five holes-in-one" in his first-ever game.

How did this happen?

A travel agency in England helped make it possible.

“I was contacted by a client in summer of 2010 asking if he could go to North Korea and play golf,” says Dylan Harris, owner of Lupine Travel, which specializes in North Korean travel. “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,” he says.

Mr. Harris says he expected North Korea to respond to his request to invite tourists to play golf there to be a big, resounding no. “Surprisingly, not only did they say yes, that he could come and play golf, but they also broached the idea of a tournament,” he says.

The travel agency got a special invite to organize a relatively low-key, one-day event composed of a rag-tag field of golfers hailing from countries as diverse as the US, South Africa, Britain, Finland, Australia, and, of course, North Korea earlier this year.

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