Surfing Through Korea’s War Games

For hours, I had watched the ominous, looping news broadcasts on my phone: the reporters cloaked in ponchos, some wearing hard hats, as tall waves crashed behind them on the beaches of Busan and Jeju Island. Typhoon Hinnamnor was predicted to be the most ferocious storm in Korean history and the second weather catastrophe of

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For hours, I had watched the ominous, looping news broadcasts on my phone: the reporters cloaked in ponchos, some wearing hard hats, as tall waves crashed behind them on the beaches of Busan and Jeju Island. Typhoon Hinnamnor was predicted to be the most ferocious storm in Korean history and the second weather catastrophe of the season. An earlier storm had produced seventeen inches of rain in a single August day, flooding the southern half of Seoul. That water had been cinematically lethal: a family of three drowned in a basement apartment; two middle-aged siblings dropped to their deaths down a manhole, whose cover had floated away.

Typhoon Hinnamnor arrived from across the East Sea onto the southern end of the Korean Peninsula. But the storm wore itself out in Japan, and, by the time I took a train down to Busan from Seoul several days later, the only terrestrial evidence of high winds was a few peeled-up stone slabs on the sidewalk of touristic Haeundae Beach. Out at sea, though, the waves continued to form angry, kinetic white walls. At a quieter Busan beach called Songjeong, the typhoon had chased away the usual scrum of bodyboarders and surfers. Cafés and restaurants closed down and fortified their doors with sandbags. In the blackness of night, the cresting, crashing waves looked like demon clouds, racing for prey.

The roiling waters of Songjeong reminded me that early fall in Korea is a time of both storms and a decades-old martial tradition: when the U.S. and South Korea conduct weeks of joint military exercises in the East Sea. Indeed, the first of these war games, which took place in 1955, just after the Korean War, was called Chugi, meaning autumn.

Nearly thirty thousand U.S. troops are still stationed in South Korea, under national and international auspices, on large and small bases scattered around the country. In the event of an actual war, the U.S. military would take full command and exert operational control of all South Korean forces. South Korea has universal male conscription and a standing army of more than a half million people, an astounding one per cent of the population. These combined militaries perform “readiness” exercises on land, air, and ocean. Their stage is the East Sea; their front-row audience, North Korea and China.

Between 2src17 and 2src21, the fall war games were smaller than usual. The then President, Moon Jae-in, a liberal reformer who prioritized diplomacy with North Korea, persuaded Donald Trump to scale back the exercises to avoid antagonizing Kim Jong Un. Last spring, Yoon Suk-yeol, of the opposition conservative party, was narrowly elected to succeed Moon after promising to reverse his agenda. For the Biden Administration, the timing was fortuitous; rehearsing a potential Korean war would send a warning to Russia and China. The war in Ukraine had also made countries eager to show off their might. South Korean weapons manufacturers supplied Ukrainian troops with a hundred thousand artillery shells, and sold billions of dollars in tanks, howitzer batteries, rocket launchers, and fighter planes to Poland. In late August, the U.S. and South Korea began Ulchi Freedom Shield, two weeks of drills, both defensive and in the vein of a counterattack.

Over the past four years, I’ve made several trips to South Korea to report on the U.S. military presence abroad. My family has an intimate connection to that presence: my mother is a Korean immigrant who, in the nineteen-seventies, enlisted in the U.S. Army, where she met my father, also a Korean-immigrant enlistee. Through the strange workings of empire, Mom was later deployed to U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan, in her home town of Seoul, where she gave birth to me and my younger brother. During her long career as an Army paralegal—first full time, then as a reservist—she participated in several joint military exercises in South Korea. Her military occupational specialty, or M.O.S., put her not inside a tank but at a desk, responding to simulated requests for wartime legal advice.

This fall, I travelled through South Korea as the war games unfolded, and rented an apartment just outside U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys, in Pyeongtaek, America’s largest overseas base by area. There, the bugle calls of reveille, retreat, and taps structured my days; the buzz of helicopters kept me up late into the night. I also toured Camp Casey and Camp Hovey, older bases near the mountainous border with North Korea, and stayed in a lodge on Kunsan Air Base, along the Yellow Sea, as U.S. fighter jets wailed overhead. On my off days, I took beginner surfing lessons in Busan, paddling in the same East Sea where so many ships and planes, submarines and rockets, were deterring, or courting, hot war.

In late September, I attended a press conference on the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier longer than the Eiffel Tower is high. The Reagan is usually situated in Yokosuka, Japan, but had docked at a South Korean naval base in Busan for the first time in five years. Travelling with the Reagan was a strike group, comprising the Carrier Air Wing 5, Destroyer Squadron 15, the U.S.S. Chancellorsville guided-missile cruiser, and the U.S.S. Benfold guided-missile destroyer. Augmented by South Korean and Japanese navy ships, they would take part in extended war games in the East Sea, in a show of what one commander called “flexible combat power” and a “shared commitment to upholding the rules-based international order.”

Several dozen of us journalists were bused into the Busan naval base from the train station. Through the bus window, I saw a rolling vista of green-black mountains and sea. The presence of the South Korean Navy had protected this part of Busan from overdevelopment. Military terrain is at once pristine and abundantly polluted, a space where “the booming sounds of shelling or artillery . . . punctuate the ambient backdrop of trees rustling and bird calls,” Eleana J. Kim writes, in her ethnography of Korea’s Demilitarized Zone, “Making Peace with Nature.” We got off the bus and joined a noisy throng of V.I.P.s and some five thousand sailors being released into town for a weekend of R. and R. before the joint exercises began. Blue-and-white tents run by the U.S. Navy’s morale and welfare department offered swag and tourism tips. A Korean Navy band, dressed in blinding whites, played a generic martial tune, and members of a flag team held the stars and stripes in their left hands and the Korean Taegukgi flag in their right.

The press conference took place on the sun-drenched deck of the ship, amid a distinct smell of burning gas. Rear Admiral Michael “Buzz” Donnelly, the commander of the strike group, told us that the binational alliance reflected a “clear vision for a free and clear Indo-Pacific.” A reporter asked if the current exercises were in response to provocations by Pyongyang. Donnelly said no, but added that “readiness” required being able to operate out of the Philippines, Guam, and the Horn of Africa. President Biden had recently declared that the U.S. would defend Taiwan in case of an invasion by China—a remarkably casual abandonment of “strategic ambiguity,” America’s policy of not taking sides. I asked whether Biden’s new stance would affect the upcoming exercise in the East Sea. Donnelly and Kim Kyung-cheol, a rear admiral in the South Korean Navy, said no: the combined training was about “interoperability” and “common security interests,” just as it had always been.

We were given a tour of the ship’s innards, led up and down cramped port ladders, through passages that felt like a maze of human-diameter pipes. The “pilot house” navigation room, full of knobs and steering wheels and elaborate gauges, was up three ladder lengths, a hundred and ten feet off the ground. A sailor on duty, wearing a uniform bearing the U.S. and Japanese flags, told me that he was from West Palm Beach. Elsewhere was a gilded statue of President Reagan garlanded in lavender flowers. At the end of the afternoon, as the journalists were bused out of the base, we encountered a few Korean protesters outside the gate. “Stop! War Exercise Yankee, Go Home,” their banner read.

Earlier that week, I had stayed on Busan’s Songjeong Beach and taken beginner surfing lessons at a school styled like a beach shop in Malibu. Despite William Finnegan’s counsel, in “Barbarian Days,” that it’s impossible to become a proficient surfer “at an advanced age, meaning over fourteen,” I felt compelled to try. A more relevant memoir was Diane Cardwell’s “Rockaway,” about learning to surf in New York City during a midlife crisis. I wiggled into a warm-weather wetsuit and sat with a few other, much younger, newbies for a brief orientation on Day One. I had worried that pelagic jargon in Korean, my second language, would elude me, but surfing speak is all borrowed English: paddle, leash, nose, tail.

The teacher was a young, floppy-haired man shaped like an upside-down trapezoid. (I later learned that he was primarily a bodybuilder.) He showed us how to tie a leash and carry a giant foam board in the wind. We practiced the universal motions of pop-up and takeoff on the sand, knowing how much harder it would be on the water. We waded in past the impact zone, where waves crashed white. We lay stomach down on our boards as the instructor pushed us, one by one, onto the crests of incoming waves. I stood up a few times and felt an unnatural, physics-defying joy. I also learned to sit up on my board, straddling the tail and looking out at the sea. The waves appeared newly mysterious: Which ones would be good enough to ride? Where did they come from? What other bodies and vessels had they touched?

Most South Koreans don’t think about North Korea. It is officially an enemy state, but it is also a vexing sibling, one whose behavior rankles yet does not surprise. Then, every once in a while, comes a genuine shock. On a warm night in early October, residents of Gangneung, on South Korea’s east coast, heard a boom and saw a red-orange conflagration on the horizon. A photo of the explosion spread quickly online, as did rumors that it was the result of a North Korean rocket. In fact, South Korea had been shooting ballistic missiles over the East Sea, into waters shared with North Korea, as part of war games with the U.S. One of those missiles, a Hyunmoo-2C, had failed to properly detonate and crashed on the golf course of a South Korean military base, less than a kilometre away from a residential neighborhood. No one was hurt, but the accident reminded the general public of the peninsula’s twitchy status quo: something between war and peace. A similar South Korean missile had crashed into the sea in 2src17.

A couple of weeks later, a friend offered to take me to the Odusan Unification Tower, an observatory directly across the Imjin River from North Korea. As the two Koreas exchanged practice fire, we peered over the border with fixed, high-powered binoculars. I was impressed by the level of voyeuristic detail: I could see individual North Koreans, working a field of rice, a bicycle, a tractor, a row of apartment buildings. I recalled that the Demilitarized Zone ends at the mouth of an estuary that’s technically neutral but used by neither North nor South. A young woman to my right reported to her boyfriend, “Wow, they live well over there,” before self-correcting and adding, “Or maybe they’ve put these people there, where we can see them, to make it seem like everything’s O.K.” To my left were several people who looked older than my parents, meaning that they’d been born in a unified Korea. When they gazed through the binoculars, did they think about friends and family members who’d gone North before the division, never to be seen again?

I returned to Busan—this time, to Dadaepo Beach—for a second round of surfing lessons. The teacher, a genial guy who’d come up in the area, indulged my interest in the science of waves. He explained their shape and how they crest and break. He also outlined the basics of a predictive chart that surfers use to judge where and when to enter the water. The variables on Windfinder, his preferred app, included wind speed and direction, weather forecast, air temperature, wave height and direction, and tidal status. The ideal condition in Busan, he said, is a wave that travels northeast. He used his left hand to represent the Korean Peninsula and a small, plastic wave figurine, tilted at a diagonal, to represent the Japanese islands. “Japan deflects the storms coming over the ocean from the southeast, so, by the time they hit Korea, the waves are chopped up,” he said. I pictured giant, oblong Japan as the lever of a pinball machine, tossing off storms like metal balls. “So you want a wave that comes from the other direction, perpendicular to Busan,” he said. I imagined storm-chasing surfers and storm-chasing admirals. At that very moment, many nautical miles away, sailors and pilots and soldiers were rehearsing for an unthinkable series of events.

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