Words by Kailani Jabour
Sometime around 2012, while enrolled in the visual journalism school at Brooks Institute, my friend Hopena Pokipala showed me an online article exhibiting the potential for good surf setups in the isolated regime of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
I’d always been drawn to out-of-the-ordinary trips that few people in the increasingly populated surfing world are doing, so the thought of traveling here was immediately planted into my brain, probably subconsciously.
Fast forward five-years later, Globosat’s (Latin America’s largest multi-channel satellite cable service) #1 sports television channel, Canal Off, approved my outlandish idea, granting a budget for myself and a videographer.
After half a year of exchanging emails organising a trip, it was finally on; an expedition of surfing, snowboarding and cultural enlightenment.
Obviously, my main concern was getting good surf. But due to the lack of information about the country and its coastline, figuring out setups and conditions was no easy task. Rising tensions surrounding the country’s nuclear program and a lot of negative media news in general left me wondering if this could even be safely accomplished.
The only way to enter the country is by paying for a guided tour. After some extensive online research and a few phone calls to tour companies — who told me there was no way I could gain the permits to film a project like this — I came across an apparently well-established and connected group who told me they could make it happen.
The trip cost over $10,000, exhausting our budget basically. Nonetheless, we found ourselves crossing the China-North Korea border over the Yalu River on a Soviet-era train with our Australian guide, Ben.
We could see remnants of an old bridge, blown up during the Korean War, extending halfway into the river adjacent to us. Once we passed the point where the bridge ended, we were officially in one of the world’s least-visited countries, North Korea.
First stop was Sinŭiju, where customs officers entered our cabin and did an extensive search through our luggage. They were curious about the contents of my suitcase and even laughed at some of my belongings.
Wisely, once we were cleared Ben handed the officer conducting the search a gifted bottle of whiskey to keep the good YPT relations.
We continued riding for another six hours through seemingly endless tracts of brown dirt-covered farmland, as the season was changing from winter into spring. Passing by rural towns, we saw big pictures of Kim Il-sung, the Eternal President, and Chairman Kim Jong-il. But once we approached Pyongyang, the capital, that evening, the scenery changed as signs of the city began to appear and propaganda music started bursting through the loud speakers.
As I stepped off the train, a feeling of having crossed into another dimension, to a past reality perhaps, struck me as I looked at the attire of the people.
As we loaded our equipment into a minibus outside the station, a huge screen on the street side displayed images of Kim Jong-un surrounded by spectators. That night we slept in the Yanggakdo International Hotel, the same place where the Otto Warmbier incident occurred.
With an eight-hour drive along bumpy roads ahead of us, we got up bright and early the next morning — crossing, west to east, through military checkpoints, small towns, beautiful frozen lakes and mountain valleys.
Nearing the east coast city of Hamhŭng, we were greeted by heavy snowfall and dense white landscapes. The forecast on the intranet — similar to our Internet but with only a few accessible pages — predicted the surf to be biggest on this first day.
Having taken nearly all day to reach the coastal city and short on time, I suited up on the bus ride, putting on my thick wetsuit, gloves, booties and hoodie without knowing what to expect from this apparent surf spot they’d designated for me.
“I’m about to have the first snow surf of my life,” I thought. “In North Korea. Am I insane?”
It was small, but this experience — surfing an empty beachbreak with thick snowflakes falling on my face as I looked back at the snow-covered beach — was unique and priceless. Essentially doing what I came to do, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of accomplishment in having made it this far into a socialist hermit kingdom many fear visiting. My Korean guides told me that I was the first person they’d ever seen surfing in the wintertime, even calling me a hero. (They’d learned to ride tiny waves the year before with the nonprofit, Surfing the Nations.)
That night, while watching the single television channel offered in our room, I contemplated the delayed swell’s arrival and plotted to wake up early the next morning to try again.
To my delightful surprise, the surf was bigger! While observing a breathtaking sunrise, I could see that the waves were adjusting with the tide and wind, getting over the morning sickness and beginning to barrel.
I ran and grabbed the first board that was ready to ride and rushed right into icicle duck-dives. The surf picked up quickly and my 5’7” became too small for the top-to-bottom, overhead, shorebreak-style waves with backwash takeoffs.
Up the beach, some rocks extended out into the ocean where some sand had accumulated, forming a more defined sand bank that resembled Snapper Rocks in Australia — hollow, spitting, wide-open barrels compared to the fast, near-closeout tubes I was dealing with.
But a wooden stop-sign was stuck in the sand in front of a small military post, which made me think twice about paddling over. The thought of switching boards came to mind, but I was so locked in with all the restrictive rubber, I figured I’d wait until after breakfast, since all the models I’d studied before the trip predicted the waves would last for at least two days. Happy I was able to pull into a few, but frustrated about my board choice, I called it a session.
After breakfast, we went directly to the military post and asked the single, armed officer stationed there if I could surf the “Korean Snapper"
After breakfast, we went directly to the military post and asked the single, armed officer stationed there if I could surf the “Korean Snapper.”
After making a phone call to his superior, he denied me access to the best wave on the beach. From their perspective, it was too dangerous. If I were to get hurt, they’d get in trouble. Defeated, I returned to the minibus.
We were able to contact a government official back in Pyongyang, who gave me the right to check out one more beach to the south, near the Majon Bathing Resort, where I finally found a wave that stayed open and had better shape for turns. It looked super fun, but by the time I hit the water the size had significantly decreased.
I’d gotten six hours of surf, though, and by the end of that day the ocean looked like a lake. Impeccable timing. Had I shown up a day later I would’ve been completely skunked, having no idea of the true surfing possibilities that exist in DPRK. The guides had never experienced a trip of this sort, either, and said I’d gotten extremely lucky.
Following the rigid itinerary we’d planned out beforehand, I stayed one more day at the beach before heading towards Masikryong Ski Resort, back towards Pyongyang, where for two days I had a blast sharing the slopes with the Koreans. Then I finished the weeklong trip with a day of sightseeing in the capital.
Initially, I’d hoped to learn more about the country, the culture and its people. But I was left with more questions than I had to begin with.
I had very little opportunity to interact with the Koreans during my visit, other than my guides and the hotel workers, and most of them didn’t speak English. Regardless, I was able to feel the substantial warmth and kindness of these people.
All politics, history, conflicts and leaders aside, my takeaways from my week in DPRK are: definite potential for good surf; undeniable natural beauty; and human kindness. If I’m ever given the chance to return one day, I most likely will. It was a mind-opening trip that I will never forget.