Surfing the New Korean Wave

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BUSAN, South Korea — It has become almost clichéd to say that hard work is ingrained in contemporary Korean culture. Though unseated last year by Mexico as the hardest working country in the world, the average Korean annually puts in nearly 2,200 hours on the job—far outdistancing Japan, the US, the UK and Canada by about 500 hours per year.

But there is a counterculture virus that looks to be slowly infecting the system: surfing.

Karl Rugen, a native of Del Mar, California, was literally the first person to ride the waves here in 1993 when visiting on vacation. He ended up settling in Busan for the long haul in 1999, a time when he describes himself as being “the best surfer in Korea, because I was the only surfer in Korea.”

Alone on the water back then and familiar with Korean cultural mores, Rugen didn’t imagine surfing would ever catch on here.

“I used to wish there were a few more guys to share it with,” he recalls. “But I felt like the Koreans were never really going to get into it. It was just too counterculture, and it wasn't catching on. Then, around 2003, five or six Korean guys were suddenly at Songjeong beach surfing regularly.”


“Before we started surfing, we were typical Koreans,” says Kimbo. “We focused on study, how to become rich and competing with others. But after surfing, we focused on nature, the ocean, peace and love and surfing. Our lifestyle has totally changed.”


Nowadays the trend is on. If the surf charts predict good waves, you can expect to share the water with upwards of 40 surfers on a busy day in Haeundae.

“Some of the young kids I see surfing now are getting good and becoming little rippers,” says Rugen. “I do look back now to how it was, though, and realize the old adage about being careful what you wish for.”

Before the “little rippers” recently took to the waves, there was a steady migration of Korean surfers to the shore over the past five or six years.

Hwang Sang-won, a 36-year-old medical sales rep, epitomizes not only the growing popularity of the sport, but the effects of the surfing mindset on Korea’s pervasive hard work ethic.

“I saw some surfers at Songjeong and at first I wasn’t interested; I just watched,” says Hwang, who’s been surfing for five years. “But then, the first time I surfed, I felt alive. It was addictive.”

So hooked was Hwang that his job soon got in the way.

“I always watch the wave charts and I never miss the waves. Whenever it is good, I skip work and go to the beach,” he says with a sly smile.

When asked how his boss felt about that, his wife and fellow surfer Choi Kyung-wook cut into the conversation, laughing: “His boss didn’t know!”

Choi’s transition to “surfer girl” is an interesting one. She wanted to share a hobby with her husband and decided it would be surfing. The problem was, she couldn’t swim.

“I learned to surf before I learned to swim. Now I see a wave and my heart beats fast from excitement because I feel so good.”

While the thrill of surfing is evident with more Korean surfers heading to the shore, the cultural shift amongst the newly-evolving subculture is profound, says Kim “Kimbo” Bo-young, a 31-year-old Busan native who develops shoes for Nike and first learned about surfing while studying in Huntington Beach, California.

“Before we started surfing, we were typical Koreans,” says Kimbo. “We focused on study, how to become rich and competing with others. But after surfing, we focused on nature, the ocean, peace and love and surfing. Our lifestyle has totally changed.”


“I can’t live without surfing. There are some things that only surfers know. When I catch a wave, I feel something magical,” says Hwang.


Choi agrees. The effect of surfing on her life is acute: “After me and my husband started surfing, our lives changed. First we moved close to the beach, we got new friends and everything was different.”

When asked if he would take a $100,000-per-year job, nice house and fancy car if he had to work in an area with no surfing, Hwang was quick to reply, “I can’t live without surfing. There are some things that only surfers know. When I catch a wave, I feel something magical.”

As the sport is still new to Koreans and only a handful of good instructors are around, they mostly pick surfing tips from DVDs and watching visiting international surfers from California or Australia, or on trips to Asian hotspots like Bali.  

The surfing lingo Korean surfers employ is mostly the English terms they pick up along the way, but Hangeul is starting to work its way into the local lexicon. They use Korean terms like jangpan, which means “floor cover”, when the water is flat. Surfing is called pado tagi, which means “wave riding”, and when you want to hit the waves, you say, pado taro gaja!—“Let's go surfing!”

According to Dan Cross, a surfer from Santa Cruz, California, the Korean surf community has infused Western surfing culture with its own style.

“It’s very communal,” says Cross. “At home, surfing is a peaceful experience and people don't talk much. Here, they hoot and holler and it’s very high energy.”

Unfortunately, Koreans can’t call their friends to say “Pado taro gaja!” every day—mother nature dealt the peninsula a rocky coastline comprised of mostly shallow seawater and broad tidal areas.

Unlike Korea’s Jeju Island, which offers the option of surfing beyond the reef when the shore break is weak, good waves are inconsistent on Korean beaches, such as the country’s most popular beach, Haeundae, which gets about two or three good surfing days per week. Another frustrating factor is that surfing access during summer months is limited to the hours between 5 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. to accommodate the high influx of beachgoers.

Making Waves Offshore

Enter the age-old dilemma of supply and demand, as some surfers get into occasional shouting matches and even fisticuffs over sharing the waves, says Cross.

“Haeundae has a surfing peak in front of the Paradise Hotel where all of the surfers from that area go. There are times that the waves are great all around that peak (meaning that there are surfable peaks up and down the beach), but you will see 35 guys just sitting together on the one peak.”

For some surfers this has created a strong sense of etiquette, requiring patience while surfers wait their turn to enjoy the limited resource. For others, it's a “Take what you can get when you can get it,” or an “I’m a better surfer than you, so move aside” attitude.

Perhaps most vexing to surfers is when the beach is closed due to waves being “too high” from a storm brewing far offshore. Many will recall last year’s second annual Busan Mayor’s Cup surfing competition in Haeundae, when a group of local and notable international contestants were called out of the water by public officials due to high (though arguably perfect) surf.

The next day, the headline that made its way around the world: “South Korea Cancels Surf Competition Due to Large Waves.”

Expats from surfing countries who are accustomed to freedom of the waves back home and a long history of surfing culture get prickly with strict regulation during summer months. Along with Korean surfers visiting from outside of Busan, expats would be wise to recognize that the warm weather brings millions of dollars into beachfront communities through parasol, beach chair and tube rentals, along with a large infusion of tourist dollars into local businesses that struggle during the winter months.

To lobby for broader access, many local Korean surfers are members of the Busan Surf Association. The group meets with government officials two or three times a year to push their cause, with the attitude that establishing a good rapport is the best way to gain acceptance for the sport.

Granted, it’s hard not to feel occasionally frustrated, says Kimbo.

“If there are good waves, we want to go out,” she says. “But it is the law, and we don’t have a choice. If we follow the laws and keep a good relationship with 119 and the Ocean Police, maybe later they will understand us.”

Regulations and other obstacles aside, it’s all about the love of surfing. For Korea’s first crop of wave riders there is also a sense of the pioneering spirit and high hopes for the sport in the future.

“For us, we are the first generation of surfers in Korea, so we live with surfing and working as a balance. It’s just a hobby,” says Kimbo. “But the next generation, if they love surfing like we do, we can support them and they can have it better than us.”


Surfer Photos by Mike Dixon


Top 5 Korean Beaches For Surfing (in no particular order):

1. Chilpo Beach – Pohang
???? ??? ?? ???); +82 54 261 5773; eng.ipohang.org
2. Haeundae Beach – Busan
(????? ???? ?2?); +82 51 749 7611; eng.haeundae.go.kr
3. Songjeong Beach – Busan
????? ???? ??? 712-2); +82 51 749 5705; eng.haeundae.go.kr
4. Gisamun Beach – Yangyang, Gangwon Province
(??? ??? ??? ????);+82 33 670 2114; eng.yangyang.go.kr
5. Jungmun Beach – Jeju Island
(??????? ???? ??? 3039); +82 64 710 3312; english.tour2jeju.net

If you want to check on the current surf condition in Korea go to www.buoyweather.com



Karl Rugen surfing Haeundae (2007)


Choi Kyung-wook, Hwang Sang-won, Kim “Kimbo” Bo-young, Kim Byung-sung




 Kim Byung-sung and Choi Kyung-wook
Photo: Mike Dixon; design: Russell McConnell


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