Seoul Surfing: The 38th Parallel Surf Project
By Shannon Aston
South Korea has gotten the surf bug badly. 38th Parallel Beach has fast become a hub for Seoul’s young jet-setting surfer class. A three-hour drive from Seoul, on any given day you will see trendies, gangsters, Hongdae hipsters, Gangnam DJ’s and foreign English teachers all jostling for a wave in all of Korea’s four distinct and extreme seasons. I lived in Seoul from 2007-2013, where I worked as a university teacher. In that time, I spent several years photographing and surfing with Korean & foreign surfers who established the area as a legitimate surfing community, and who sharing the coastline 50km south of one of the most dangerous places on earth, the DMZ dividing North and South Korea’s.
I was initially drawn in by rumors and bar tales spun by roughish Australians who had surfed with local Koreans in blizzards drew me in. It being pre-Facebook and IPhones, proof was murky. Poor photos of clean waves in the snow and a complex myriad of forecasting and local bus info made it even more confusing. These rumors lead me down a three-hour stretch of highway from Seoul to the 38th Parallel on Korea’s east coast. My Korean co-workers giggled at me coming to Korea with a surfboard, but a peninsula must have wave I thought and if there is wind and sea there must be waves.
38th Parallel Beach or ‘sahm-parl’ (3 & 8 in Korean) is a beach, harbor, military base and a highway rest stop. Weary travelers can stop for strong, sweet coffee, spicy food and tacky souvenirs. My first trip there was to investigate the surf rumors. Arriving at a protected harbor, I was impressed and could see its potential, so my girlfriend and myself jumped in. Surprisingly, when we came in a film camera was shooting us as we came up the beach together. Turns out they were filming a commercial for nuclear waste storage and our water exit appealed to their aesthetic. I posed for a photo with the bespectacled producer and later learned that we made it in the commercial; only in Korea! 38th Parallel beach felt special from the day one and this odd tempo set the tone for my future visits. Later on, I discovered the best waves I’d seen in this country, and to my surprise there were surfers, too. Koreans, Kiwi surf rats, and even some wobbly Nova Scotian’s all surfing and hunting for peaks to break the grind of Korean ex-pat life.
A 38th parallel surfer is a Seoul surfer. The car park overflows on every swell with weekend warriors, chain-smoking in the latest gear and waxing up only the hippest of shapes. Koreans like to do things together, be it banquet style eating, all night drinking or raucous socializing. Surfing has become just another activity to share and the entire culture is geared up for it with various surf store/camp operators down the coast catering to the amped up Seoul surfers. Surfing in Korea is tinged with madness and magic. Koreans go full throttle with everything they do and surfing is no different. On a weekend, the line-up resembles a chaotic Korean market place with people and boards going every direction. Over 3ft, Mother Nature takes control of the space and the break clears out quite significantly. Korea is a small country with an enormous amount of people, so fighting for your position on the sidewalk and the road is a way of life, surfing is no different.
Initially as a makeshift surf fix to break the grind of Seoul, the good surf days remain vivid in my mind because my lowered expectations only amplified my ‘stoke’. The surf and culture on the east coast of Korea surprised me and my experiences were in a word, unique. Surfing in Korea is tinged with madness and magic. Koreans go full throttle with everything they do and surfing is no different. On a weekend, the line-up resembles a chaotic Korean market place with people and boards going every direction. Over 3ft, Mother Nature takes control and the line-up clears out significantly. Korea is a small country with an enormous amount of people, so fighting for your position is a way of life and surfing is no different.
The East coast of Korea has some of the most consistent and powerful waves in the country and with ever improving forecasting technology, modern social media and South Korean connectivity, the short lived swells which originate in the East Sea are no longer left un-surfed. The community has grown rapidly, as thing in Korea do. within the local fishing community and the ever-present ROK (Republic of Korea) defense force, who have been protecting South Korea from the distant threat of a North Korean attack or DPRK defectors since the 1950’s.
As a lifelong surfer, the mixture of this semi-remote location, exotic culture and the three distinct groups all occupying the same area is incredible to me. I tried to spend as much time as I could out there getting my surf fix and capturing the amazing and strange things I saw at this wonderful South Korean beach.