'Surf's up!' from the ... 38th parallel

Much of the eastern coastline of South Korea, running up to the border with North Korea, is militarized and heavily fortified, guarded by fences, security cameras, guard towers and army outposts, but the area is also home to some of the best waves in South Korea. CNN's Ivan Watson reports.

Posted: May 29, 2018 5:04 AM
Updated: May 29, 2018 5:08 AM

If you want to surf near the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), you might have to pass through barbed wire to reach the waves.

Much of the eastern coastline of South Korea, running up to the border with North Korea, is militarized and heavily fortified, guarded by fences, security cameras, guard towers and army outposts.

But the area is also home to some of the best waves in South Korea.

With surfing taking off in this country in recent years, colonies of surf enthusiasts have sprung up amid the military fortifications.

"We've had this kind of environment for so long, we're not really intimidated by the military action or soldiers passing by," says Lee Hyung-joo.

Located around 45 miles (70 kilometers) from the DMZ, Lee's beachside bar and "Surfyy Beach" surf camp is separated from the ocean by an eight-foot-high security fence topped by razor wire. Every morning, he says soldiers unlock a gate in the fence that gives customers access to sea and sand.

"About 300 meters from here, there's an artillery base," Lee says, pointing down the road.

After big storms, he often finds North Korean cigarette packs and water bottles washed up on the beach here.

Dressed in billowy tie-dye trousers, a Jack Daniels tank top and sporting a beard and man-bun, Lee looks the part of a stereotypical beach bum.

But he's also an ambitious tourism operator, who describes how he and his partners negotiated with the military as well as county and village officials to secure permission to set up their business on a beach he says was closed to civilians until 2015.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, visiting families take selfies in front of a large "Surfyy Beach" sign erected in the sand, just meters from a military camera that scans the horizon.

Up and down the coast, there are many similar examples of beach communities co-existing with the security forces.

At the 38th Parallel Beach -- the original dividing line between North and South Korea, which existed until the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 -- a squad of soldiers carrying rifles patrols the shore at sunrise, long before wetsuited surfers hurl themselves on boards and paddle into the ocean.

North Korean incursions

The security measures protect the coast from the threat of possible North Korean incursions.

In past decades, there have been a number of deadly incidents involving North Korean security forces that approached the South Korean shoreline.

In September 1996, a North Korean submarine ran aground near the city of Gangneung. The South Korean government says 11 of its soldiers, two police officers and four civilians were subsequently killed pursuing 13 North Koreans who came on shore from the submarine. The North Koreans were all eventually killed, according to the South Korean Unification Ministry.

In June 2002, six South Korean naval officers were killed when the two countries' navies fought a battle near the western island of Yeonpyeong.

In 2010, North Korea shelled the same island, killing two South Korean marines and two civilians.

Surfyy Beach surf instructor Kim Seung-jun says he lost friends in that incident. At the time, he was serving as a marine.

"Nowadays it's a good situation, but we have to continuously protect ourselves," Kim says.

Peace and waves

Among those surfing here on the coast, there appears to be broad support for the recent warming of relations between the two Koreas, as well as last month's summit between the North and South Korean leaders.

"Before, I never felt the North could be a friend," says Kwon Min-ju. Now, she says, "I feel very close to the North."

Kwon, who works as a yoga instructor in Seoul, drives three hours to the coast most weekends to surf with her boyfriend, Yeom Seong-hoon.

Dressed in wetsuits, their faces caked with heavy sun protection cream, they say they hope a peace treaty between North and South would prompt the military to remove the security fences along the beaches.

"We want peace and waves," says Yeom.

Some in the tourism industry here, like Surfyy Beach operator Lee, hope a lasting peace between Seoul and Pyongyang would open up restricted stretches of coastline.

"If somehow peace will end the war and maybe there's a peace treaty signing... then I don't think they'll have use for this barbed wire and also the military bases on the beach," Lee says. "Which means more opportunities for tourist businesses."

But Lee, who also surfs, has another ulterior motive.

Like all of the other surfers we talked to here, he dreams of one day surfing unexplored breaks north of the DMZ.

"We always talk about going to North Korea," he says.

"Surf tourism up in North Korea would be great," says Jake McFadyen, a Canadian who may be one of the first foreign surf instructors working in South Korea.

McFadyen first came to South Korea to teach English in 2007. He says at that time, hardly anyone in South Korea knew about surfing.

"Back in the day, I used to get called out of the water a lot by the sea police," he says.

Today, with surfing booming on the South Korean coast, he says more and more people scour satellite photos speculating about North Korean waves.

"I don't think I'll be sneaking in through any fences to get into North Korea any time soon to surf there," McFadyen says.

"But if it's possible I'd love to check it out."

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