Dear Leader and The Golf War-Updated

Pyongyang, October 13, 1994

(see updated correspondence below text)

THE first hole at the Pyongyang Golf Club is a 340-metre dogleg par four, a severe test of skill even for Normans and Nicklauses.

But it was a mere cakewalk for North Korea’s “Dear Leader”, Kim Jong-il, when he gave “on-the-spot guidance” at the country’s only golf club recently.

“Dear Leader Comrade General Kim Jong-il, who I respect from the bottom of my heart, scored two on this hole,” said course “professional” Mr Park Young-man.

Clearly, the mysterious 52-year-old son of the late “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, and the man the world expects to be anointed soon as President of the Stalinist “Hermit Kingdom”, is a hero of the golf course as well as of the North Korean people.

Hole by hole, Mr Park, who has never heard of Arnold Palmer, explains that the Dear Leader shot a 34, including five holes-in-one, and no hole worse than a birdie – one under par.

“He is an excellent golfer,” Mr Park said.

If North Korea is in the dire economic straits the world suspects it to be- and anecdotal evidence suggests it clearly is – the solution is obvious: launch the Dear Leader on the pro tour.

Just this golf outing illustrates the lengths North Koreans will go to deify the family that has ruled this country in the service of socialism for five decades.

Indeed, in the week this correspondent spent travelling with tour guides-cum-secret police, this was one of the milder feats they were responsible for.

Official propaganda has it that the two Kims are responsible for everything from the morning sun and harvest rain to world peace and the Mona Lisa. He is not responsible for the Moon landing. But nobody in North Korea yet believes there has been a landing on the Moon.

This is a land of roads without cars, restaurants without diners, chimneys without smoke, where every aspect of individual choice has been taken away by the state, or more correctly the Worker’s Party of Korea. Even the purchase of a toothbrush requires approval from a party cadre.

It is a regime where the Bo-Wee-Bu, the “security department”, is probably not necessary, because the notion of dissent seems superfluous in a land where even the dawn is the creation of the omniscient Great and Dear Leaders.

“THIS is the world’s last great arbitrage opportunity,” says Mr Paul Pheby, Seoul-based director of investment bank Peregrine, scouting Pyongyang for joint ventures.

We are speaking in the billiard room of Pyongyang’s Koryo Hotel, the main if not the only social focus for the few foreigners who venture to North Korea.

“This is a country of undervalued assets, 20 million cheap workers who will do what they are told, and everything separated from the world by an artificial line,” Mr Pheby says.

Peregrine, which likes its regimes rigid, is the latest of a lengthening line of hated capitalists scouting North Korea for joint ventures midst murky signs that it may at last be opening for foreign business.

Korean-speaking Briton Mr Steve Cox, one of the few Westerners resident in Pyongyang, claims that his Euro-Asian Business Consultancy represents 10 Fortune 500 companies sniffing around for opportunities.

Multinationals such as Royal Dutch Shell, DHL, Unilever, Ciba-Geigy and Asea Brown Boveri have recently sent delegations, mostly to study the prospects for the United Nations-backed special economic development zone to be fenced off in in the far north-east of North Korea, near the Chinese and Russian borders.

Australian diplomat Mr Ian Davies, who administers North Korea for the UN’s Industrial Development Organisation, believes “reformers” are pushing to the fore of the Worker’s Party and that an opening-up is necessary for the maintenance of the regime.

“They are watching very carefully what is happening in China,” he says. “It is early days, but they are looking to virtually copy the Chinese experience.

But China looks positively liberal compared to North Korea, where the economy has contracted by 4-5 per cent a year since 1990 and the country has an appalling history of welshing on its debts – including a $US1 billion syndicate headed by the ANZ Bank for a wheat deal. Australia’s TNT stationed an agent in Pyongyang for a year in 1992-93 for a $US200,000 state contract. The agency relocated to Beijing, the contract officially “dormant”.

Not least of the problems is North Korea’s monetary system. The economy has three currencies – green won for hard-currency use; a little-used red won for trade with communist brethren; and the brown won used by average Koreans the few times they venture to poorly stocked, rarely open state shops.

There is little obvious foreign influence in North Korea. Because of Kim’s doctrine of Juche, or self-reliance, Koreans have been encouraged to do it themselves.

The result is the shoddy output that communism specialised in, and not much of it.

The few North Koreans who know of the export successes of the booming southern economy – Daewoo, Hyundai, Samsung – describe Seoul as prostituting the Korean people, the “puppet regime” reliant on foreign trade to feed its people.

There are no foreign goods in average stores and even the privileged hard-currency stores, where foreigners and party potentates shop, Chinese goods are considered luxury items.

There is little obvious economic activity in North Korea, even in Pyongyang, the geometrically planned exhibition capital.

There is clearly a severe energy shortage. At 6.30pm, the lights of city apartments come on automatically, illuminating the portraits of the two Kims every household and public building is obliged to display. At 10pm, they go off.

Even in the dim Koryo Hotel, chambermaids switch off hallway lights after guests have moved through them. Pyongyang is a city without noise, without activity.


POST SCRIPT: In 2012, a Briton I don’t know, someone called Tom Law, published this: – on his blog that purports to correct media wrongs. (I discovered it by chance when researching a piece I am writing, after receiving yet another inquiry about the Kim golf story)


Kim Jong-Il claims to be the world’s greatest golfer

In 1994 the North Korean propaganda machine reported that Kim Jong-Il had racked up 11 hole-in-ones during his first ever attempt at playing golf. His 38 under-par round at the Pyongyang Golf Course was verified by his 17 bodyguards.


It’s a great story, but there is no record of either the North Korean media or Kim Jong-Il ever making this claim. The origins of this ‘fact’ are from an International Herald Tribune article. It was an off-the-cuff comment made by a groundsman at the golf course during a chat to an American journalist called Eric Ellis.”


I ASKED Law to correct two of his assumptions he wrote 1) that I am not an “American journalist” and 2)that the origins were in the AFR and not the IHT. He refused,  later saying he would do so only after the AFR  corrected my own ‘inaccurate’ report – 18 years later, about a place he admitted he has never been. I think the poor chap was missing his medication

This is the bizarre correspondence that followed, perhaps also titled as How to Ill-Advisedly Waste An Afternoon:

From: Eric Ellis <>
Subject: Re:
Date: 26 October 2012 12:24:18 CEST

And the original article, as appeared on P1 of the Australian Financial Review, the Australian FT/WSJ, of which I was Asia Corres at the time.

You amusingly asked if I ‘fact-checked’ my interlocutor’s anecdote. The answer is no, because his remarks were so clearly ludicrous, why would one bother? A round of 34 is about 24 under the established world record. It was more interesting – and revealing – as a vehicle for the lengths some very scared people felt/feel they have to go to deify the First Family. How do I know they are scared? Because I was there – its called journalism.

On 26 Oct 2012, at 12:04, Eric Ellis wrote:
The most honest and correct re-telling of the story, largely because he consulted me, which you didn’t. I’m not hard to find. You tap my name into Google and its usually the first result. Sometimes things aren’t as conspiratorial as they might appear to be, sometimes things are just banal.

On 26 Oct 2012, at 12:32, Tom Law wrote:

Point noted,

I’m genuinely interested in your look at how the Internet is liable to blur lines between opinion and fact.
But I would also ask you to look at your original artilcle in the same light.

One area that I was intrigued by, was this section:

“It seemed an image of rural harmony in developing Asia – a woman riding a push-bike beside a paddy field where peasants were harvesting rice. But the bicycle carried two oversized loudspeakers blaring a jaunty revolutionary song: “Kim Jong Il, you are our supreme commander; with you we will win a great victory.”
Her task was to ride up and down a single short stretch of road outside Pyongyang for eight hours a day, every day. The speed of the woman’s pedaling directly determined the tune of the song, like a dynamo powering a bicycle headlight. If she slowed, the song slurred, and in North Korea nothing is permitted to stop the revolution.”

What efforts did you make to check this or did you use your assumption?
Did you speak to this woman?
How do you know her task was to ride up and down – who told you?
Where did you get the eight hour figure from?
How do you know the lyrics to the song?
You’ve presented this as if the bike was specially rigged up to ensure the woman keeps pedalling as some kind of bizarre propoganda device.
Do you genuinely believe this is what was happening.

How much of this is factual and how much is your attempt to find a story where non-exists?


On 26/10/2012 11:52, Eric Ellis wrote:
To address your questions;

I do not work on the basis of assumption.
I witnessed that particular anecdote – it  was – quite a common scene in rural DPRK. The details of that anecdote was happily and openly provided me by the two minders/government officials/guides who accompanied me on my tour. They did so not on the basis that this was unusual. To them it was commonplace, and quite normal. For memory, on this occasion, they pointed it out to me, as a point of pride. (This was also at a time of rumoured famine). I then asked questions, based on many years working as a foreign correspondent in China (which had provided something of a state information revolutionary template for the NKeans to expand) and they provided the answers. Despite what the headline (for which I was not responsible) says, this was not necessarily conventional propaganda. It was precisely as I reported it, the peasantry exhorting each other to work harder, in the interests of the collective/state, and that was that particular woman’s job.

Yes, I genuinely believed this happened, otherwise I would not have reported it.

As for your last remark, it doesn’t bear the dignity of a response. But I hope it made you feel better.

On 26 Oct 2012, at 13:09, Tom Law wrote:

Thanks for that.

So to go back to my questions:

What efforts did you make to check this or did you use your assumption?
(Law answers himself) You assumed it from what the minder had told you.

Did you speak to this woman?
(again) No

How do you know her task was to ride up and down – who told you?
(again) You assumed it from minder

Where did you get the eight hour figure from?
(again) Presumably minder

How do you know the lyrics to the song?
(again) Minder?

You’ve presented this as if the bike was specially rigged up to ensure the woman keeps pedalling as some kind of bizarre propoganda device.
So you genuinely believe that throughout North Korea at the time of your visist the government was employing people to ride up and down roads on bikes which were specially rigged up so that they had to constantly pedal to play propoganda music?

You base this on something your minder said. You made no actual effort to check if any of this was true.
You didn’t bother to ask the woman herself – which you’d imagine would be a good place to start when checking if this was accurate or not.

You do not mention in the story that this is just something the minder said. You present it as fact.

You then allowed this to be published throughout the world and to portray North Korea as a deranged world of robot slaves forced by the state into carrying out this kind of insnae life sapping act. Which may or may not be  true.

What makes you think this is any more accurate that the golf anedote your were told?


On 26/10/2012 12:20, Eric Ellis wrote:
OK, mate, you’ve got me…I confess. I’m actually Jerrold M Post. I’ve succumbed to your penetrating interrogation. Well done you, surely a genuine konghwaguk yeongung medal is winging your way. But strangely, rather as I imagine the various doped-up Tour de France cyclists also feel, I’ve now been liberated from the burden of 18 years carrying these carefully-cultivated lies. (I wondered what all those CIA cheques were about) I’m calling Lance Armstrong immediately…

On 26 Oct 2012, at 13:37, Tom Law wrote:

Heh, heh, fair enough. I’ll get back in my box.

As you’ve pointed out – I’m no paragon of journalistic purity. Theres no big conspiracy and the reality is usually banal  – that’s why people aren’t particularly interested in it.

But I do think there’s something genuinely interesting in how a pretty throwaway comment written a long time ago has been appropriated over the years.

One last question.

Did you ever write a story about the fact that North Korea wasn’t suffering from a famine, surely that could have been considered as something of a scoop.

To have the journalistic guile to take a look inside a secretive country and find that some of the reports of famine etc were overexaggerated?

And did you feel your newspaper was looking for a certain angle in the coverage you provided?


On 26/10/2012 13:13, Eric Ellis wrote:
I didn’t write a story that it was not suffering a famine because I saw no evidence it wasn’t, and many suggestions that it might have been (people eating earth, drinking grass juice), but not enough to warrant writing a story that it was. Had I written there was no evidence of famine, I would’ve made a serious error as it later emerged there was a serious famine at the time, known as The Arduous March, a local term. It was admitted by the government, and the DPRK accepted international aid to help remedy it. Again, I suggest you do a little more reading before making assumptions.
And, no, my newspaper made no instructions to me.

On 26 Oct 2012, at 14:20, Tom Law wrote:

Thanks for the info.

In light of your comments, you might like to get that article you cite as being the most honest and accurate account revised:

“Ellis was really in North Korea to investigate famines that were rumored to be causing disturbances. This was just after the death of Kim’s father, Kim Ilsung, and before Kim ascended to power. Along the way he saw no evidence at all of famine. “I went to get one world scoop,” he says now. “And I ended up getting a completely different world scoop.”

From: Eric Ellis <>
Subject: Re:
Date: 26 October 2012 14:35:46 CEST
To: Tom Law <>

No, I shall not be doing that because – to go by your standards of what constitutes a fact – I saw occasional things consistent with famine, which is very different from ‘evidence of famine.’ To extend that literally, does the drinking of grass in a juice bar in, say, Islington suggest there’s a famine there? And I don’t know enough about Korean cuisine to conclude that earth wasn’t some sort of cooking ingredient. To write there is a famine based on those observations would be insufficient and irresponsible.

The only factual corrections I deem necessary here are those that provided my initial contact – your assumptions that I was American and that origin of the golf anecdote was in the IHT. As I have explained, that is not so. And, I note, several hours after I pointed that out, that you are still to correct your record.

On 26 Oct 2012, at 14:57, Tom Law <> wrote:

Why didn’t you ask your minder about the famine?

He was the reliable source you relied on to report that North Koreans are paid by the govenrment to drive up and down roads on specially rigged propoganda bikes.

Why didn’t you write an honest report of your experience – that you found nothing to suggest there’s a famine. Yes, there were signs of poverty but you didn’t see a country crippled by           famine in the way the West was portraying at the time.

In light of the evidence you’ve provided me I’m requesting that you take whatever steps are needed to correct your original article. It is wholly inaccurate to portray something as fact when it’s, at best, hearsay from a minder.

The article needs to make it clear that you’re purely repeating something a minder told you and that you made no attempts to establish if any of it is true.


On 26/10/2012 14:05, Eric Ellis wrote:
Mate…truly, get a life….if you want to revisit an 18 year article to complain to a editor who no longer works there that I didnt write that there wasnt a famine in North Korea when the state later admitted there was one, and there was much to suggest there was, well,knock yourself out…correct your “facts” that I originally asked and stay away from those funny cigarettes..

On 26 Oct 2012, at 15:39, Tom Law wrote:

When it was written is irrelevant. It’s published on the Internet and continues to be viewed.

Yes, I do want it changed because I think these things are important and so should you. You were obviously fairly indignant that I had details wrong, something which I’ll hold my hands up to and gladly correct.

You don’t seem to have the same enthusiam, however, when it comes to something which I consider a great deal more important.

As it’s relatively unusual for reports to come out of North Korea from Western journalists, your article obviously has had some influence, and continues to do so.

You went to report on a famine – which you didn’t find. Instead of giving an honest and balanced account saying that – you chose to write a misleading and innacurate report in which you present hearsay from a minder as fact.

My assumptopnm is that this was a journalist looking for scraps to justify the time and expense of an otherwise fruitless trip.

You used this article to create a general perception of a deranged country full of robotic slaves – again, this may or may not be true. But to use the propogandist cyclist to present this viewpoint is inaccurate and misleading when you completely failed to check it was true.

I would be obliged if you could provide me with any of the editorial contacts necessary for me to get this actioned.

On 26 Oct 2012, at 16:54, Eric Ellis wrote:

I shall humour you, for the last time…

You say “your article obviously has had some influence.” I suppose, inasmuch as you – a self-appointed media crimes campaigner – have been among the handful since who have seen fit to incorrectly cite it without bothering to consult me (that’s Journalism 1:01), an oversight which would seem to strongly at odds with your zeal in correcting the general media record. But it was about golf. It was not about famine. You are incorrectly – again – connecting the two. But, as you correctly point out, you are ‘no paragon of journalistic purity.’

As for famine or otherwise, consider this a free lesson in Journalism 1:02. No self-respecting professional journalist not going to write there is no famine when there are clear, albeit limited, suggestions of one, just as no self-respecting professional journalist is going to write there is a famine based on those same limited suggestions, when either perspective is virtually impossible to verify within the confines of a highly-controlled state-escorted tour that is only evident upon actually taking it (which you didn’t.) I suggest you re-read that passage above a few times, to take in its subtlety.

As things transpired, after I had left, there was a famine in the DPRK – a very serious one, which I later wrote about – a famine which had begun long before I got there, suggesting the incidents that I witnessed turned out to be proof of sorts, though still limited. So, on balance, at best I erred on the side of caution, at worst I missed the story. And yet – and have a long, long think about your logic here – you are demanding the record should be changed to reflect that there wasn’t a famine, 18 years on, when there, er, was one. That, my erstwhile interlocutor, I find seriously strange and I’m saddened for my industry if when you do undertake work for the media, you do so informed by such logic.

Given that you seem to struggle with logic, and basic journalistic procedure, I’ll put it another way to make it easier for you to understand. Armed with your logic, a journalist visits Nazi Germany in 1942 on a state-directed tour. He/she doesn’t get to see Auschwitz, ipso facto there must not be a Holocaust, despite the dwindling Jewish community insisting there is. But it turns out the Jewish community and others are tragically correct. But, 18 years on, that doesn’t satisfy you. In 1958, long after the Nuremburg trials, even as the Wiesenthal Centre goes after Nazi monsters, you demand the media of the day apologise/correct the record for not writing in 1942 that there wasn’t a Holocaust. That would make you a Holocaust denier, as well as ludicrous.

“Hearsay from a minder”….hmm, did I say that? That looks like another of your assumptions. Again, I don’t recall you being with me at the time, but minders are precisely that, they are there to officially provide information on behalf of the state, as they proudly did on this occasion. Some might call it propaganda (and not propoganda, as you routinely and incorrectly render it).

Fruitless trip? Again, I don’t recall you being with me. Among other activities, I had a very revealing round of golf, which brings me again to the reason why we have had contact today. I look forward to your correction. And, take this as another free Journalism 1:03 lesson, be careful not to make assumptions.

All of which leads to sadly conclude that you are at best illogical and bored, at worst a troll, and I don’t have any further time for either. Were I to put bored, illogical trolls in touch with my editor of the day, he would have strong grounds for suggesting I seek medical help, and I wouldn’t blame him. But feel free to undertake your own research, and make your complaint as you see fit.

Now, I’ve stupidly wasted too much of my day on you, so I ask you to be a nice little chap, please correct the two errors I have pointed out and darken my inbox no more.

In the interim, you might find common purpose with this crowd… And then look up the origins of the term ‘useful idiots’