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?

Ng Han Guan/AP/File
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.

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.

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.

Now, the North Korean authorities have given the go-ahead for the competition to be expanded, with the 2012 version set to be played over three days by more than double the number of players who played this year.

Other efforts to attract tourists

The DPRK Open is not the only effort being made by the North to attract visitors from overseas.

The North Korean authorities have been touting a secluded resort at Mount Kumgang, situated on the North’s eastern coast near its border with South Korea 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 killed by a North Korean soldier in 2008.

And this month, the North launched a cruise liner from its northeastern port of Rason. However, the ship, called the Mangyongbong, is unlikely to worry the household names of the cruising world: It’s about 40 years old, offers cramped rooms, puts on a spread of reportedly low-grade culinary offerings, and allegedly some dubious sanitary conditions.

Harris, though, harbors high hopes for the golf tournament. Despite being shrouded by uncertainty, the inaugural 2011 event, he said, ran without any glitches.

He believes similar events could help massage the tense relations between the North and the outside world.

"Already this year there has been an international Taekwondo tournament and a marathon," he says. "Last year another tour company took a group of cricketers over to Pyongyang to help spread the sport over there.

"I think events like this can only help North Korea's relations with the outside world. Ignoring the country is not going to help anybody. I think engaging with them is the best way forward."

As for the kind of experience tourists can expect? Ian Garner, tournament director, paints a more 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.”

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