For most surfers who are intrigued by North Korea's untapped wave potential, their curiosity is satisfied by simply scrolling the country's coastline from the safety of Google Maps – from which it appears there are indeed fairly fun-looking waves. But rocky relations with the U.S. and the government’s historical violations are enough to deter most surfers from a trip to North Korea, no matter how empty and fun the view from space may appear. Despite the deterrents, for the past few years, a Hawaii-based, non-profit humanitarian organization called Surfing the Nations has been making an annual trek behind the last iron curtain to share surfing with North Koreans.
Surfing the Nations (STN) branches out across multiple areas of service on both the local and global levels. Founded over 20 years ago, the organization's vision is to promote the concept that surfing and giving back can go hand-in-hand. Aside from services like feeding the hungry and mentoring the youth of Wahiawa (their headquarters), STN will assess the needs of foreign communities found in countries such as Bangladesh, the Middle East and even North Korea. STN will then establish a plan, build a team and travel to these locations to serve and share the joy of surfing with them.
STN Senior Staff member Robert McDaniel found himself exemplifying the organization’s mission statement – and definitely out of his comfort zone – in 2014 when he went on STN's first trip to North Korea. We called up McDaniel to find out what it was like surfing in one of the most volatile geopolitical regions in the world.
How did Surfing the Nations get into North Korea?
Ten years ago I went to my boss and said, ‘We’ve got to get into North Korea and go surf and do our thing over there.’ And he said that it was a great idea and challenged me to figure out how. I sat on it for a while until, by coincidence, I met a guy who lives in South Korea and has been taking groups into North Korea for humanitarian work for a long time. They were mainly focused on clean water projects, like digging wells. One day he was doing a project in North Korea and there was a hurricane swell near Japan that was pumping some pretty good surf to North Korean shores. This guy is a surfer and after seeing the waves knew that he had to get back there to surf. He knew about Surfing the Nations and the work we do so he contacted us and we set it up from there.
What was the main objective in going there?
We went into North Korea to promote surfing as a tourist opportunity for them. North Korea does actually get tourists–not as much as other countries but more than Westerners give them credit for. We got hooked up with the head of North Korea's tourist agency and worked with him to set up the first trip. We came over under the guise of "sharing" surfing with North Korea. We weren't allowed to use the word "teaching."
Were there any other suggestions on how to act or what not to say?
My friend who had experience doing humanitarian work in North Korea gave us the lowdown on what to expect. They told us our hotel rooms will be bugged and to make sure you don't speak anything negative about the North Korean government or any of its leaders. They gave us regulations on just about everything–no going off on your own and no exploring on your own. We were going to be doing something that no tourist there had ever done before. We were going to have a certain level of freedom because we were going to be in the ocean. We'd show up on a beach and there'd be a section roped off. It wasn't stated but it was heavily implied that we were not supposed to go beyond the roped off section of the beach.
Did you get to tour the country at all?
The first couple of days were very guided. We flew into Pyongyang and got the tour that pretty much everyone gets when they go to North Korea. It's a propaganda tour. First you go see some of the highlights of North Korean culture, you see dances, art festivals, different things like that. Then you go to dinner where there's karaoke.
The next day they take you to their war museum. It's really difficult and painful to walk through because you just see pictures of wounded and dead American soldiers everywhere. It's entirely geared toward anti-American propaganda. You feel really low walking through there.
Then they take you to two big statues of Kim Jong Un and Kim Il Sung. You have to pay your respects there; people bring flowers and drop them off. They told us, 'Hey, if you take photos that crop out any part of the great leader's body you will have those pictures confiscated.' That goes with everything, whether it's a picture of the leaders or a picture of a statue.
How did the “sharing” of surfing go down?
Well, we had three days of surfing, the first day we had no surf. It was flat as a pancake so we basically just put them on soft tops and taught them the concepts of paddling and standing up. The second day there was surf, enough to push them in, and they had a blast. They had a great time and were loving it.
On the third day we got some pretty decent-sized surf which was too big and too stormy for them, so we got to paddle out and show them what surfing looks like. That was kind of fun for us because we just got to surf the third day.
Do you think they got hooked on surfing and that it will be something they’ll do regularly?
We left the surfboards and wetsuits but you don't know who you're leaving that stuff for or how it will be used. The people that were there aren't going to be able to say, 'This is my board, I'm going to surf this whenever I want.' All the tour guides are ex-military and that's the government-appointed position they've been given. We did have some one-on-one discussions with them, which probably wasn't allowed, and they were kind of telling us, 'It's not like we can pick to go on this tour. We get assigned to these things.' So, for them, I don't know if they’ll pick up surfing. They got to experience surfing for one day, enjoy it, and have a great time with it but it might be the only time some of them surf.
The second year we went was kind of cool. It seemed like we were given a little more freedom and the beaches weren't roped off. We were pushing little North Korean kids into waves. I know the power of surfing and once a kid catches a wave for the first time he's going to do everything in his power to figure out a way to get another one.
What type of impact do you think Surfing the Nations has had over there?
Western culture has a lot of positives and negatives that it brings when it infiltrates countries. In some ways we look at our work in North Korea as a small piece of the puzzle that will someday open them up to the rest of the world. This generation of North Koreans is going to see these Western tourists going over there, giving back, doing something fun with them, and that's going to appeal to them. They're not going to have the same buy-in of anti-American hatred that their fathers had. They're going to go, 'Oh no, I've met a few Americans and they were good. They took us surfing and we had fun together.' That's kind of our hope, it's a small hope but it's what we're holding onto.
Is there a specific encounter or experience that kind of summed up your trip over there? Maybe an interaction with a tour guide or a person you were sharing surfing with that sticks out?
Yeah, we all got paired off with specific people and I got a gentleman by the name of Pac. He spoke very poor English and was probably one of the bolder guys there. He had a wife and kids. Pac happened to understand surfing the best. He was standing up, had the best balance, and was loving it. Every wave he caught he would be smiling from ear to ear.
We were thrown a North Korean style banquet on the beach at the end of our time there. We're all sitting around and talking like we always do at the close of our trips and Pac stood up to say a few words. I can't recall if he had a translator or if we just understood what he was saying, but he basically said, 'I know our countries are enemies but you're not our enemies, you're our friends and I hope one day our countries can be friends.' That was a pretty powerful moment for me.
Agents of Change is presented by Cobian's Every Step Matters (ESM) initiative. Learn how, by choosing Cobian footwear, you can make a positive impact and enrich the lives of others at Every Step Matters.
[All photos courtesy of Surfing the Nations]