If you mention surfing in Korea to anyone from an established surfing nation, the response will be one of disbelief but since 2007, Korea has had a steadily growing surf culture which is now on the cusp of booming. With a swell that hits the northern part of the Peninsula in the winter and then flattens out and moves south in the summer, the conditions are inconsistent at best which leaves the die-hard surfer frothing for more but left high and dry.
In spite of this, the question remains, how does a society that prides itself on education, hard work, and overachievement, make the move toward a counterculture based on a sort of spirituality that combines oneness with nature and a return to a peaceful state of being.
In the Beginning
In the beginning, there was only the Songjeong Surf Club, located at Songjeong Beach in Busan. This surf club is the oldest surf school in Korea and paved the way for the next generation that has followed. Last year alone, the Songjeong Surf Club held thousands of lessons over the course of the summer season and is gearing up to double those numbers this season. The number of young Koreans joining the lineup has almost doubled annually; surprising because the surf is seasonal at best.
The winter northern swell hits Gangwon province from November to March and surfers must brave freezing temperatures and beaches covered in knee-high snow drifts to reach the icy swell. The summer southern swell is hindered by the Korean beach season. Strict regulations about surfing during peak times come into effect, causing surfers to lose out on peak wave periods. Surfing was so new to Korea that a surfer paddling out past the swimming boundaries usually got whistled in or was surrounded by rescue jet skis and boats, as it was perceived that they were in extreme danger. A surfer at that time also risked ripping out their tail fins on the lines connecting the buoys that bordered the swimming zone. Yet, with the number of surfers growing each year it may be time for the outdated marine rules to change and modernize.
Little by little, surfing has slowly garnered acceptance and marine regulations have begun to relax. Surfers are still prohibited from surfing in a typhoon swell, which produces the best and largest waves, and face fines upwards of W200,000 for doing so. About three years ago, the Busan Mayor’s competition at Haeundae Beach was canceled due to a typhoon warning; however, the waves were standard for an international surfing competition. The cancellation was met with international criticism when articles about the cancellation appeared in both a national newspaper and local magazine, soon afterward making their way onto the internet.
The competition was the first time that non-Korean pro surfers came to Korea specifically for a surfing competition, heightening the disparagement of the authorities for canceling the event. In the wake of criticism, the marine authorities started to relax some of the outdated stringent laws, allowing surfers to enter the water when a high wind warning is in effect, but only if they’re registered with the local sea police office. While this was seen as a major step forward, surfing in typhoons is still banned.
As the number of surfers started to grow, so did the opportunity to create an industry within Korea for surfing. The first “Americanized” surf shop to open its doors was Surfer’s Dream at Haeundae Beach. The shop opened in February 2006 and is truly worthy of its name. Owner, Ricky Lee was a pioneer ahead of his time and a visionary for the Korean surfing community and the culture to follow. In the last four years, over 20 surf shops around Korea have opened their doors to capitalize on the growing number of consumers.
The Industry and Korean Identity
In the past five years, major surf brands like Ocean and Earth, Roxy/Quiksilver, Billabong, and Rip Curl have come to Korea to cash in on the surf industry boom. Offering rider sponsorships to contest winners and attaching their names to surfing schools, the cash grab is on. In Korea, people like to be part of the trend so looking at the part in some cases, is more important than actually surfing. It’s customary for consumers to simply buy high-end gear to walk around in, while never setting foot in the water.
Korea has also seen an increase in the number of Korean-made surf products. This year alone, brands like Antidote/Go South and Surf Code are creating local apparel and accessories that reflect the growing Korean surf culture and the identity of Korean surfers. A number of surfers have also turned to board shaping, creating unique, locally-produced surfboards that carry a distinct Korean flare.
The first generation of Korean surfboards was produced by Ganda in 2006. Ganda is the godfather of Korean surfboards; he has refined them over the years and created “Ganda Surf,” a high-end Korean brand with a distinct identity. Following in Ganda’s footsteps came shapers like U&U, based in YangYang, and longboard rider/shaper Byeong-jun, owner of Gaviota. Byeong-jun studied for over three years with a Japanese shaper to hone his craft and now produces beautiful longboards, decorated with iconic designs that reflect Korean culture. In the past year, True Park has joined the ranks of the top shapers in Korea. A sculptor by trade, Park studied in America and visited the West Coast during vacations. He fell in love with the beauty of the surfboard and decided to become a board shaper. Upon returning to Korea, he faced the obstacle of finding the materials necessary for shaping.
Most surfboards are made from polyurethane foam and polyester resin, but these materials are not available in Korea and need to be imported from the U.S. or Australia. This results in high production costs, so Park decided to work with wood since it was more available. As a Korean shaper, Park believes that local board-makers have a better understanding of the local surfing community, and are better equipped to make boards suited for local conditions.
The main obstacle Park and other Korean shapers face is the reliance on imported surfboards by Korean surfers and the belief that they are the best quality. Korean surfers who watch the ASP (American Surfing Professional) and ISA (International Surfing Association) competitions see the pros riding them and feel that the board is what makes the surfer a pro. Park hopes that as the skills of Korean shapers grow, the preference for foreign imports which are extremely costly, will fade in favor of locally-shaped boards. Currently, he relies on word of mouth, blog (truepark.com), and Naver Café (truepark.org) to sell his unique, locally-made hand-shaped hollow wood boards, as most surf shops still choose imported boards for retail over the locally-shaped brands.
Korean Surfers Are Unique
In spite of the high costs of surf equipment and conditions which can go from world-class to completely flat within a day, Korean surfers can be seen sitting on their boards, waiting for a little bump or the elusive “perfect wave.” Ocean and Earth Korea team rider, Kyeong-ah mused that Korean surfers are unique because of their ambition in the face of adversity; adversity which pertains to the lack of consistently good surf conditions. And the question remains, why is the surf population rising so dramatically each year?
According to Kim Bo-yeong, Ocean and Earth team rider and one of the first generation female Korean surfers, people don’t surf on their own. People look for a community via the internet or a surf shop to find a surf crew to join. When traveling abroad, she noted that surfing is more of an individual sport but in Korea, surf shop membership is very strong, and people stay loyal to one shop or another.
According to Bo-yeong, Korean people like to do things together and have shared experiences. Because surfing is still very new, people use the community and surf shops to get information and enjoy the sport with like-minded peers. Dylan Kim, owner of Gwangalli Surfing School / Kai Surf, agrees with Bo-yeong. His shop has a large membership that hosts special events and monthly evening get-togethers for members to meet and share surfing tips, plan surf trips, or just enjoy a meal and some drinks together. Last year, his shop hosted special surfing clinics for its members with Ocean and Earth pro rider, Guy Bartlett, and this year he is gearing up for special events and surf clinics with big wave tow-in surfer and Ocean and Earth pro rider Brett Burcher.
When asked why he would invest in the cost of bringing a pro rider of Brett Burcher’s caliber to Korea, Kim responded “Korean surfers don’t have many opportunities to meet and surf with pro riders. This is a chance for young surfers to get tips and surf advice from someone who is surfing at a high level, and his advice might just help a grom (young surfer) realize their dream. We have to invest in the future of young Korean surfers, no matter the cost, if we want the sport to grow.”
As in other established surfing nations, surfing has its own language or slang. Korea has followed suit and Korean surfers have coined slang terms to describe the sport of surfing such as pa-do-ta-gi (파도타기) for “surfing”, and wave conditions such as jang-pan (장판) for “no waves” or “flat”, ji-gi-nae (지기네) for “awesome”, and sa-ra-in-nae (살아있네) for “good.”
Korean surfers favor the “shaka” over the more common “V” when taking photos and greeting each other as a sign of peace, love, understanding, and friendship which describes the Korean surfing community perfectly. Even the most novice surfer is welcomed into the “lineup” and given tips on how to read the waves or take off on a wave. Surfing competitions in Korea are more like friendly gatherings and everyone is encouraged to try their best. In some of the beginner-level heats, surfers even give up waves so that more novice surfers can try their hand at a long ride, and are given encouragement from competitors when they successfully take off on a wave.
The Future of Surfing in Korea
Even with a lack of consistent waves, Korean surfers will still go out and paddle, waiting for the elusive waves with the hopes of becoming world-class surfers ranked on the ASP (American Surfing Professional) tour. In the last few years, the KSA (Korean Surfing Association) brought the ISA (International Surfing Association) to Korea which has enabled top-class Korean surfers to get competition judging licenses. This has led to a change in the rules of surfing competitions, and competitions have begun to follow international standards making them more of a competition than a festival.
Korea has also seen more highly ranked international surfers and brand representatives come to Korea, but international surfers and Korean surfers are still competing in separate classes. According to Kim Bo-yeong, most surfers in their early 20s haven’t had enough experience to surf against international surfers who have been surfing since early childhood. There is the hope that the third generation of Korean surfers will represent Korea internationally.
While barely out of diapers, they are already hitting the waves. Kim Kai-young is one of those third-generation surfers. At only 31 months, she already has two custom shaped surfboards from the legendary Spider Murphy waiting for her, as well as a sponsorship with Ocean and Earth Korea when she’s ready to enter the grom divisions in just three short years. It helps that her dad owns a surf school and surf shop, but many of the first-generation surfers who now have children of their own see the same future as Kai for their own offspring.
Where will surfing in Korea be five years from now? Will it follow the trend in California and Australia and become more “aggro” as surfers jostle for a position in the lineup? Will surfers still encourage newbies to join the lineup? Regardless of whatever direction surfing in Korea takes, it will definitely grow while still remaining “Korean.”
The Rise of Skate Culture
You see kids zipping down the street on neon-colored, plastic penny boards and 20-year-olds cruising down the avenue on Carvers; it seems these days skateboards are everywhere. Shortly after last Christmas, the penny board became the staple of almost every high school and middle school student. You can even buy knockoffs at your local stationary store and Carver boards are now a staple at almost any surf shop. What makes them so popular? It’s a counter-culture and a community in and of itself.
The Skateboard Industry
Skateboarding has been around in Korea for upwards of 20 years, but never gained the momentum that it has now until the past two years. Lee Ki-young, owner of Neo Skateboard Shop in Seoul, surmised that the rise of skateboarding in Korea has a lot to do with the affordability and accessibility of equipment. In the last four years, the import of skateboards to Korea has risen making them readily available. Now, with more retailers carrying skateboards, distributors have a wide range markets and can sell the boards at a more affordable price.
Every shop that carries skiing/snowboard equipment or surfing gear has added a rack of skateboards to its core merchandise. American-based wholesale warehouse Costco has also recognized the growing trend and introduced skateboards into their summer stock for the mainstream masses. According to Lee, the international popularity of longboard skateboards has made skateboarding easier and more approachable. It’s no longer about doing tricks, grinding rails, or an extreme style of skating. It’s more about street skating and cruising.
A brand on the rise in Korea is Carver skateboards, which has traditionally gone hand and hand with the surf market. The brand invites skaters to skate the way they surf. Recently, Carver has made the move into the mainstream market in Korea, as it offers skaters a sense of community and community is what skateboarding in Korea is really all about. Skateboard distributors within Korea usually target a market of 14 – 26-year-olds, but Carver believes that skateboarding is for everyone; the youngest skater is 31 months old and the oldest is 63 years old.
Carver’s distributor in Korea has taken a different approach to the brand. Carver Korea has created a community where the owners of Carver skateboards can get together for street skates once a month and share techniques and experiences, much in the way surfers do in the surf lineup.
To help skaters refine their skills, Carver Korea has also built a skate bowl in their flagship store where they hold lessons for novice and intermediate skaters alike on the 3rd and 4th Thursday of every month. The bowl is open to the community during regular store hours and private lessons with Carver team riders can be booked for a small fee. Says brand Manager Lee Ji-hoon, “Carver is responsible to the community and we want to make sure that people skate safely which is why we offer lessons with trained riders.
Skateboarding, like any sport, can be dangerous if you don’t learn the proper techniques or wear the necessary safety gear. We want to make sure that our community skates safe!” In comparing the brand’s boards to surfing, Lee said, “The loose truck of the Carver board makes the boards perfect for surfers who want to get the feeling of surfing when there are no waves, or transition a skateboarder to surfing more easily.” When asked why she enjoys skateboarding, Carver rider Lee Roo-da stated that she loves the feeling of freedom gliding down the street. She also enjoys the sport with her friends and support for her growth in the sport from the Carver community and coaches.
As the trend toward leisure sports continues to grow in Korea, and the youth of Korea continue to search for outlets of expression and a sense of community, both surfing and skateboarding will continue to grow and may subsequently help change some of the outdated conservative dynamics of the country by creating a strong counter-culture.
Cheryl Kim is a Busan-based surfer and surf writer. She has been an active part of the Korean surf scene since 2006 and continues to surf her home break at Gwangalli beach.