- Interview: Christian McLeod
Surf Guide To North Korea
Two military bullets dropped Park Wang-ja to the ground at dawn, only a few yards away from North Korea’s Mt. Kumgang beach. It would be the last sunrise she would see. Earlier in the morning Park had left the boundary of the resort and inadvertently crossed into a restricted military zone. North Korea released few details following the shooting, leaving South Korean officials in the dark about what really happened.
As news of the incident spread, it reminded the world of North Korea’s volatile and secretive temperament toward outsiders. Just beyond the walls of Mt. Kumgang’s tourist beach, miles of quality surf breaks light up, concealed from the rest of the world. Waves along this coast have remained a mystery for years, and there are only a few clues that shed light onto the surf potential of this region.
Over one million tourists have visited the Mt. Kumgang resort since its opening in 1998. Visitors cross the demilitarized zone by train to experience the beauty of the secluded bays. But what about venturing beyond Kumgang, into the unknown?
“A visitor joining the KFA Delegation is not treated as a tourist but as a friend of the DPRK, having access to places, information, insights and events not allowed for regular visitors,” states the nation’s tourism site. Would this include the option to explore the rest of the North Korean coastline for surf? Only a few miles to the south, South Koreans can look across the border from a lookout tower and glimpse waves through binoculars. Big, white peaks can be seen breaking on the far side of the DMZ. But to search deeper requires more than binoculars.
Where ground-level observation isn’t feasible, satellites orbiting the globe in outer space can cast a secret eye into the depths of the secluded kingdom. Satellite images hint at incredible potential. North Korea features every kind of setup imaginable: triangle and finger reefs, finely grained pointbreaks, beach towns, rivermouths, and miles of groomed sand bar beach break, all of it drab, stark, and snowy in the winter.
Perhaps the most intriguing of the North Korean setups are the failed jetty and harbor constructions that dot the coast. These poorly engineered, man-made skeletons don’t do exactly what they are supposed to. Instead, they resemble something a surf break engineer might dream of creating. Jetties and breakwalls are at odd angles. They trap sand in unforeseen ways and create waves that can’t be found in nature. When it comes to coastal projects, its the trashed ones that are often a surfer’s treasure.
North Korea’s north east coast meets Siberia, about 100 miles south of Vladivostok, bordering the Sea of Japan. The sea experiences almost no tides. During winter, beaches are covered in snow. Typhoons can quickly appear and spin off large swells that last for days. It is unclear whether any North Koreans surf, or whether the regime would allow it.
All we can do is deduce the potential of this unexplored surf region with a handful of satellite and tourist images and hope for a time when North Korea’s doors are opened. Then surfers will begin a new chapter in the history of surf exploration and discover untold mysteries of perfection. But for now, North Korea’s coast will remain undiscovered to outside wave seekers. That is, as long as a Mt. Kumgang visitor doesn’t sneak a board on the train and take a ride across the DMZ.