20 03

We continue our bi-weekly photo essay series from Shannon Aston about surfing South Korea’s 38th Parallel. This week, he gives us a feel for the military influence along this border town. Though not as dangerous as they look, the military presence here is felt deeply.

Soldiers and the Sand

The ideological and political dividing line between North and South Korea is located at 38°0’N 126°49’E on the 38th Parallel. Historically symbolic, it is currently used as a physical border for the two divergent Koreas born after the Korean War. Now the DMZ (De-militarized Zone), a 250-kilometre (160 miles)-long and 4-km (2.5 mi)-wide buffer zone, separates them, tenuously. Still active today, the area tends to look like a museum for the cold war and its long forgotten tensions. Bill Clinton once described this part of the world as the scariest place on earth.”

In the past, North Korea bore the brunt of foreign invasions from Manchuria and beyond. With its rugged mountains and almost mythical terrain, the North Korean personality developed a militant edge from years on the brutal frontiers of the Korean peninsula dealing with their expansive Chinese neighbours. The largely agrarian South was slightly more protected from these conflicts. But this landscape and history created a battle-hardened frontier society whose endless dealings with foreign invasions finally led to the tipping point we all know, after the Japanese occupation and before the Korean War. North Korea drew its line in the sand.

Both Koreas are now heavily garrisoned along the DMZ with border skirmishes, nuclear threats and shellfire on an almost weekly basis. The unpredictable, sabre-rattling foreign policy of the North Korean regime looms large like a dark cloud over everything South Korea does, threatening its security and economic development. With its huge, one-million strong army, double that of South Korea’s civilian army, North Korea’s DPRK is ominous. South Korea’s ROK army is mostly made up of the compulsory conscription of Korean men aged 18 to 35, who serve for roughly two years, whereas DPRK consists of men who are required to serve for 10 years; so the disparities in skill level are obvious. The United States has also had a 28,000-strong military force stationed along this border since the Korean war as an act of solidarity with the South Korean government. It is impossible not to feel the presence of conflict here.

38th Parallel Beach is on a strictly guarded coastline of small bays, jetties and long sandy beaches running all the way past Sokcho to the north and down beyond Gangneung to the south. A quick 40-minute drive from 38th Beach brings you to the eastern DMZ and the Goseong unification observatory, with its spectacular and uninterrupted view of the North Korean coastline. Some beaches are completely off-limits – fenced all the way down to the water’s edge – and most headlands are policed with guns. ROK naval vessels patrol the coast along with numerous century towers and beach patrols looking for danger and discrepancies.

Surfing on the 38th Parallel is a lot about the army in name, history and environment. Barbed wire, tanks, jeeps, spotlights, boats, guard towers, bored soldiers and army paraphernalia are everywhere to be seen, giving the feeling of surfing in a battle junkyard of an irrelevant conflict. You feel danger, but you are not in danger. The non-threatening way in which the ROK army deals with its border is commendable, and they are completely integrated into local community life. It may appear benign to some, but to me the large army presence and the huge lengths of protected coast suggest that the ROK are very serious about national security.

At the Goseong unification observatory looking at the North Korean coast, I fantasize about surfing in North Korea during a typhoon and drinking a delicious North Korean Taedongkang maekju (Taedong River Beer) after an awesome surf on the beautiful east coast. I hope for unification one day because South Korean beer is really terrible!

For the full Surfing the 38th Parallel photo essay series, see:

Part 1: Winter 

Part 2: Soldiers and the Sand

Part 3: Seoul Surfers

Part 4: Waves

Part 5: Strange Tales

Part 6: Saying Goodbye

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