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The Woman Who Taught Korea to Surf

Ed Jones/Getty

A little more than two decades ago, if you had stood on the shorelines of Song Jeong, a beach town on the outskirts of South Korea’s second city, Busan, you might have seen a single person bobbing in the sea or flying on a board across a line of swell—a slight woman, who, in the decades to follow, would start a revolution and eventually bring surfing ashore. But it was the late ’80s then. Korea had traditional expectations for its women, and it was even uncommon to find a woman in an office. Which is why it’s surprising that the woman in the sea, Mi Hee Seo, now 49, today runs perhaps the most successful surf shop in the country. 

Before all that, though, Seo competed nationally as a champion skier. When she wasn't carving the slopes, she was winning prizes as a windsurfer and baffling her neighbors in the waters around Busan. By 1995, Mi Hee Seo had opened up a windsurfing shop in her city, but was unable to interest her fellow Koreans in the sport—it just wasn’t part of the culture. It was also unsafe for novices as the constant, heavy winds were dangerous for a rookie with a sail. Seo's fledgling company stayed firmly in the red.

The following year, Seo saw a Korean-Australian man spring into the water on a board half the size of her windsurfing craft. She wondered how he would even manage without a sail. “I thought windsurfing was the only way to catch a wave,” she admitted through an interpreter. And then a wave broke. The man popped to his feet, dancing the shortboard across the little glass wall. "I ran over to him and grabbed his arm and asked him to teach me," Seo said as we sat in her Song Jeong Surf Club, the very first surf shop and surf club in Korea. After that day, she switched her focus to surfing.  

In the clubhouse, photographs of Korea's short surf history hang on blond wood walls along with pictures of Seo dropping in on a large Balinese wave. Plaques and a few dozen trophies celebrate her prowess. That day, a cohort of youngsters at least half Seo's age milled about, thumbed through surf magazines, waxed their decks, or just waxed nostalgia about the day before—all surfers want to impress a visitor with their break. 

"You should have seen it here yesterday," one of the kids said, spinning recent history. Seo and I grabbed two longboards, walking across the street to watch a few hundred surfers stare off toward the horizon, waiting for something kinetic to push its way through. 

While Korea is hardly known for its surf, the wintertime and typhoon season can bring solid swells. Outdated rules, however, sometimes prevent would-be wave riders from paddling out into the best conditions, as Korean authorities are ready to slap brazen surfers with significant fines. It would be like ticketing Vermonters for riding down mountains in the winter—they’d pay the fine and do it again anyway. 

On the day that Seo and I stood on the beach studying the ocean, we were presented a summer flatness familiar to surfers worldwide. The waves were nothing more than mushy bumps that the wind had disorganized. Everyone waited to get a little lucky. We ran into the water together, and with her sun-bleached hair and nimble stride, Seo didn’t look much different than her peers, a floating contingent of twenty- and thirty-year-olds. But even her teenaged son, who spends part of the year in Bali with Seo's daughter—both of whom ride for major surf labels, Hurley and Rip Curl respectively—has probably considered that his mother might be the coolest person on the beach. (“When he was younger,” she said of her son, “I had to actually give him won”—Korean currency—“just to catch waves.”) 

In the water, Seo paddled through the lineup. Her presence granted her instant respect, and every other surfer bowed as she slipped past. I've surfed hundreds of breaks in a couple of dozen countries, and whenever the crowds got heavy, a tense vibe tends to brew in the seas. But in the waters of Song Jeong—at least with Seo on patrol—it was all smiles. 

When a little peak finally tipped forward, driving a small A-frame toward the shore, Seo, who had developed a sixth sense for Song Jeong, was in position and then on her feet with grace and fluidity, cutting her board hard to the left and sidestepping toward the nose. She flirted with the idea of perching all ten toes over its edge, but settled for five. As the wave began to die, Seo snuck her way back toward the center of her board, rediscovered the pocket of energy, and threw her hips back and forth to make the most of the small swell.

"More than anything," said Cheryl Kim, an expatriate who had re-learned the sport from Seo after a long hiatus, "I enjoyed watching her surf. It was like watching someone dance on water."

Even if the waves in Song Jeong were mediocre, the vibe in the sea that day was contagious, everyone febrile from the initial stoke. Two decades ago, it was a different story.

After Seo had learned how to surf from the Korean-Australian, she attempted to form a surf community because it was lonely out in the water. In the late ’90s, she had the idea to offer free classes to ten students. She purchased three surfboards for them to use whenever they wanted. 

"Every day [the boards] broke. Every day [I had to] repair," she said, her eyes going glassy as she spoke of those first hard years. Her surf club operated at a loss for more than a decade and then straddled the break-even point for another five years. But today those ten surfers are more than 400. Seo's club does about 250 lessons weekly, and receives more than 300 phone calls every day. Unlike most veteran surfers who look out onto their once empty break and refer to new crowds with annoyance, Seo smiled and said that she could cry. "I feel very proud. I inspired all this."

"Master taught half the people in the water how to surf," said Yong Joon, a novice who’d begun to take lessons from Seo two years before. Most of the other half—another one hundred patrolling at dusk—had learned indirectly from her, too, Joon and others in the water told me. 

For many of the city's residents, surfing has become a major part of life. Song June née Tae Wook, who owns Bear Brother Surf Shop and goes by the moniker Bear, told me that learning to surf had changed his life. "For the first time I felt happy." 

Besides Bear Brother, the sport stoked an entrepreneurial spirit in the coastal city. About fifteen shops have opened in the past few years; if every local surfer were equally distributed among the shops, it would mean less than 70 customers per store in a sport that does not require all that much equipment after the initial investment.

Regardless, like Bear, many of Mi Hee Seo's former students found surfing to be all encompassing. While most shops cannot operate like Song Jeong Surf Club, which focuses only on surfboard sales, lessons, and rentals, many of the new places have subsidized their passion with other offerings. SurfGym, for example, operates as both a gym and surf shop, while Kai Surf Shop is better known as a skateboard shop with an in-store bowl.

When night came to Song Jeong, Seo caught a wave in and showered off in the locker room behind the clubhouse. She grabbed a whistle and marched back across the street, standing beside one of the surf rescue towers that she had convinced the city to build. Seo placed the whistle to her lips and gave a few short blasts, like a matron calling her unruly children in for dinner. But she, who rode these waters before anyone else, should never be confused with a Korean woman playing the role tradition had once prescribed. And still they came ashore.

An earlier version of this article misstated a name. It is Mi Hee Seo, not Seo Mi Hee.