in the half-century since the end of the war that left Seoul in ruins, that city’s population has multiplied ten-fold, to 9.6 million inhabitants, or one-fifth of the nation’s population. In South Korea, per capita annual income has mushroomed 100-fold to $10,000. Other cities in the world have grown as fast, but none has done so while simultaneously shedding poverty for middle-class affluence. I try to imagine how visitors and North Korean defectors and refugees react upon first arriving in Seoul. Are they awed by the phalanxes of skyscrapers sheathed in flashing video advertisements? Do they stand paralyzed at street corners witnessing the endless traffic jams of new automobiles?
Most likely, they share my own culture shock upon encountering Seoul’s marketplaces. Some are bazaars that stretch over a hundred square blocks, their street stalls fusing into shops and multistoried arcades. The shopping frenzy continues even below street level. It’s possible to walk an hour through underground malls without retracing one’s steps.
My own exploration of the city’s commercial center begins at Dongdaemun, or Great East Gate Market, named for an immense stone archway with curving tiled eaves, a monument erected in 1869. (There has been a city gate on this site for six centuries.) Open round the clock, Dongdaemun consists of 29 shopping malls and 30,000 retailers—a vast, crowded maze of shops offering items from shoes to electronic goods (lipstick-size MP3 players, calculators that flash psychedelically, cell phones so tiny they hang from necklaces), from army surplus and camping equipment to chandeliers, from neon lighting fixtures to restaurant refrigerators.
I arrive at Dongdaemun shortly after midnight, when the wholesale clothing market is in full swing. Bus caravans disgorge shoppers and shop owners from around the country and abroad who are here to purchase knockoff Armani suits and the billowing traditional Korean dresses called hanbok, cashmere sweaters and rough-cotton NFL jerseys, satin slacks and faded blue jeans. I’m on constant guard against overloaded scooters and pushcarts. Most dangerous of all are the squads of ajumma—“aunties”—wielding sharp elbows as they hustle their booty back to waiting vans.
Even in this crush, Katya Morozova and Olga Lavrentieva stand out. Tall, blonde Russians in their 20s, they travel to Seoul several times a year to buy coats, jackets and dresses for resale at street fairs in Moscow. In broken Korean and improvised sign language, they bargain with a middle-aged male vendor at the PyeonghwaFashionPlaza, a five-story clothing emporium. “Olma imnikka?”—“How much?” asks Morozova, pointing to a knee-length leather overcoat. She gets a steep discount after agreeing to double her order to 20 coats and pay in cash.