Surfing the 38th parallel is not like surfing in Malibu or Lower Trestles in California, or Snapper Rocks on Australia's Gold Coast. 38th Parallel beach -- one of the few available beaches on South Korea's east coast -- is a strip of sand about a third of a mile long, cut off on both sides by barbed wire-topped fences. Getting to the waves means carrying your board past the aging guard towers that dot the coastline. A person taking a nighttime stroll on the shore might find himself at the center of a spotlight, shining down from a sentry tower. It's all a far cry from the laid-back surf towns of California, Costa Rica, or Australia.
And yet more and more Koreans are finding that they like their surfing with a little bit of border tension on the side. Photographer and surfer Shannon Aston began documenting the growing surf scene at sahm parl hae pyeon, or 38th Parallel Beach, two years ago. What started as mainly expats seeking better waves than popular Korean surf areas like Busan and Jeju Island in the south had to offer is beginning to come into its own, Aston says. Today, there are shops, camps, and hotels geared toward the surfers that come from Seoul year-round, even during the bitterly cold winter months.
The strange location -- about 37 miles south of the DMZ -- is never far from the surface, Aston says. "You can see the guard towers above you," he says. "There's barbed wire, you see patrol frigates coming out of the water, at the river mouth you'll see tanks, jeeps." While the east coast of the Korean Peninsula is mainly peaceful -- with far fewer of the skirmishes that flare up from time to time in the waters off the west coast -- the occasional North Korean defector might still turn up on an east coast beach. Troops still patrol the sands daily.
But the surf scene keeps growing, undeterred. These are, after all, among the top waves South Korea has to offer, Aston says. They just happen to be found between two strips of barbed wire.