SEOUL — It seemed only a matter of time before the interplay between Pyongyang and Washington finally got around again to golf.
President Trump took the first swing in November in a speech to South Korean lawmakers. His address was intended to underscore U.S. solidarity months after North Korean nuclear tests, but it curiously veered off into golf with comments that included a plug for his Trump-branded course in New Jersey.
Now, it is the South Korean military that is stirring a bit of a golf-related sideshow.
The Defense Ministry has been defending a $30 million golf project after critics complained that it sends the wrong message amid the South's outreach to Kim Jong Un’s regime and related uncertainties, including efforts to revive a June 12 summit between the North Korean leader and Trump.
The grumbling over the golf course plan seems mostly tied to internal political feuding between President Moon Jae-in’s government and the main opposition party. But it also shows how much any political or military moves in South Korea — even 18 holes for recreation at the National Defense University — can be framed around the fears, hopes and countless other variables surrounding the North Korea overtures.
The golf course spat kicked off this week soon after Moon held a surprise meeting with Kim in efforts to salvage the Singapore summit canceled by Trump. The conservative Liberty Korea Party — far more cautious about talks with the North — claims that the planned golf course is a symbol of everything that is wrong with Moon’s rush to find a political reset with Kim.
“The [golf course] plan goes against common sense at a time when the nation should maintain a solid security posture in consideration of the ongoing inter-Korean dialogue” and the prospect of a Kim-Trump summit, said Kim Hak-yong, a lawmaker from the Liberty Korea Party, according to Korean media.
Instead, he called on Moon’s government to use the money for strengthening military readiness and following through with pledges to modernize the armed forces.
There’s nothing new about Moon’s political opponents taking potshots at him. But everything is amplified in the current atmosphere with the North Korea dialogue in the balance. So South Korea’s military brass felt the need to issue a response over the golf course proposed for the Defense University, south of Seoul.
The Defense Ministry submitted a statement to the National Assembly insisting that the golf course plan is, in fact, part of military upgrades.
“An army golf course helps troops enhance military capability and maintain readiness,” the statement said. “The course can also make a potential site for military operation.”
Golf has strayed into Korean affairs before.
In the 1980s, a golf course at the U.S. military headquarters in Seoul was a focus of protests by groups claiming that the U.S. military presence was undermining Korean culture. (Three decades later, South Korea has dozens of top golf courses and millions of golfers.)
South Korea also hosts what has been dubbed the world's most dangerous golf course: a one-hole, 192-yard, par-3 at Camp Bonifas, a United Nations and South Korean post where U.S. troops are stationed close to the demilitarized zone. The “course,” featuring an AstroTurf green, is bordered by mine fields; at least one errant shot is said to have exploded a land mine.
North Korea has its own manicured par-5 links, the Pyongyang Golf Course, where the North’s propaganda machine reported breathlessly in 1994 that then-leader Kim Jong Il played his “first and only ever round,” shooting 11 holes in one.
What really may have happened, according to Golf.com, is that the North Korean leader’s score was kept using a “relative-to-par system” that marks zero for pars, one for bogeys, two for double bogeys and so on. North Korean officials apparently mistook the ones for bogeys as holes in one. Such accounts, however, leave open the question of what they made of any possible zeros on the scorecard.
And it’s still unknown whether Kim Jong Il's son, the current leader Kim, has ever teed off.
Min Joo Kim contributed to this report.