Extreme thrills: Waves in the war zone

WHITE WATER: Surfers plough through deep snow to get to the surf along the coastline of the 38th parallel – the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea.
WHITE WATER: Surfers plough through deep snow to get to the surf along the coastline of the 38th parallel – the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea.

Never mind the guns - when surf's up in the war zone, it's time to grab your board.

With tensions high between North and South Korea, the demilitarised zone between the two countries is one of the most volatile places on Earth.

But the threat of war doesn't stop a tight surfing community from catching waves, even as soldiers stalk the beach and helicopters roar overhead.

KIWI LAD: Photographer and surfer Shannon Aston.
KIWI LAD: Photographer and surfer Shannon Aston.

The 38th parallel is the latitude along which North and South Korea were divided after the Korean War in 1953. Where the ancestors of Kiwi photographer Shannon Aston once fought, he now surfs - and documents.

Mr Aston used to surf the breaks off New Zealand's peaceful east coast, near his home town of Christchurch, before moving to Korea to begin lecturing at a private university in Seoul.

Now, he regularly drives three hours out of the city to a coastline lined with barbed wire, towers, soldiers and guard posts, photographing the unlikely rise of the extreme sport.

WAR AND RECREATION: Barbed wire and good waves are found at the 38th parallel.
WAR AND RECREATION: Barbed wire and good waves are found at the 38th parallel.

Though underground pockets of hardcore surfers have existed for years, surfing has exploded as a pastime among Korea's young elite.

"On any given day, you will see trendies, hotties, gangsters, Hongdae hipsters, Gangnam DJs and foreign English teachers all jostling for a wave," Mr Aston, 38, said.

"Surfers are always drawn to the exotic and challenging and most will travel huge distances to surf a wave in a strange place, war zone or not."

It will be 60 years in July since the Korean War, when New Zealand sent 6000 men to bolster United Nations forces against North Korea and China. After three years of fighting, the war halted with a stalemate.

An armistice was signed between the Koreas but war technically continues, with tensions palpable near the four-kilometre-wide buffer zone between the countries.

North Korea has been threatening to attack South Korea and the United States for weeks, after UN sanctions in the wake of a North Korean rocket launch in December and nuclear test in February.

Mr Aston said though security was often heightened after skirmishes along the strictly guarded coastline of the 38th parallel, the military was a fixture in Korean life. The army presence, while inescapable, did not feel dangerous.

"The Korean people are good at dealing with hardship and challenging situations ... stoic indifference masking some deep sorrow is the best way I can describe South Koreans' view of the divided peninsula."

Fishermen, surfers and the military co-existed together in an odd balance, he said.

"They [South Korean army] are completely integrated into local community life - usually, it's the fishermen yelling at the surfers for riding the great waves near the harbour entrance and blocking the fishing boats."

The Dominion Post