Pioneering New Surf Frontiers: North Korea
In a history-making moment this past July, 19 surfers departed the USA, Europe, Asia and Australia to bring one of the most freeing experiences known to man – surfing – to the most closed nation on earth: The Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (a.k.a. North Korea). Each person returned with incredible stories about a country that very few foreigners have experienced.
The main purpose of the trip was to lead two surf camps, showing the North Koreans how to enjoy their coastline with the sport of wave riding. The students were 10 tour guides from the country’s official tour group, Korean International Travel Company (KITC). Along with the surf camps, the team spent a total of 10 days within the DPRK touring the capital, Pyongyang, visiting museums and experiencing various exhibitions of North Korean culture.
Julie Nelson, staff member at STN and one of the first women to surf the shores of North Korea, planned and led the surf camps along with co-worker Ryley Snyder. “It was surreal,” explained Julie, “I grew up watching films like The Endless Summer but it’s crazy to think that such isolated places like those in the film still exist today!” Even though the concept of surfing was completely new to the North Koreans, they met the new sport with a strong enthusiasm. “People were so excited to surf that they even tired us out!” Ryley said.
At the end of the surf camps the team held an awards ceremony, in which each instructor affirmed and acknowledged their KITC pupils and then gave them each a chance to speak about their experience. “I specifically remember three of the people who shared,” long-term staff member Robert McDaniel said. “The man I taught to surf was probably the best surfer of the group. He stood up the most and was the most active. I remember pushing him on a wave and thinking that if the one reason I came to North Korea was for this one wave, then it was enough. At the awards ceremony he stood up and told us, ‘Surfing is my best friend.’ Among the other participants, was a man who shared that he believes surfing is bringing peace between Korea and America. Another KITC surf pupil shared, ‘Surfing has made me brave. Before this I didn’t want to try things…I was afraid. Now I want to try new things.’”
Of course, everyone wants to know what the surf was like in North Korea! For two of the surf days the coast was like a lake, but on the third day an offshore typhoon generated a little swell, perfect for beginning surfers. The final day, consistent, glassy, overhead sets came in. The STN team had an amazing session all to themselves, and their students were treated to a show of the best surfing they’d ever seen. The locals of the Majon area named the surf spot “Pioneers”.
Robert, who has served on STN’s international department and been on most of STN’s international surf trips, said that in comparison to all his travels, nothing was quite like North Korea. “This was the first time seeing surfing enter a country. Being able to witness the first moments of a nation’s surf history was incredible. People know Hawaii as the first place that was surfed, and you just wonder, could North Korea be known as one of the last?’’
STN is hoping that this is not the last time they’ll be in North Korea, and with the stoke already spreading in the country, there is sure to be a demand for more boards besides the 13 they already left behind on this trip, knowledge and instruction in the future. STN is excited to see North Koreans gain a love for the water in their own country, and become, like the surf spot, ‘Pioneers’ for the surf culture of North Korea.
The Surf Camp
And when the surf picked up…