Tuesday, December 09, 2008

It's not often that South Korea looks like North Korea, but sometimes, under the right conditions, I feel like I'm in the North Korea I see in documentaries. In those films, the sky is perpetually gray and the people are dignified and well-dressed, but they can't hide the stress and the poverty in their lives. A massive but deserted public space made of concrete also makes me feel as though I'm in North Korea. Nearby there is a large park with long, wide concrete paths the size of a road, and a massive statue in the middle. On a cold day at dusk, it's almost completely empty and feels like one of the many perpetually empty monuments in Pyongyang. Whenever I pass a large, empty concrete space here, I try and imagine what it would be called in North Korea: the People's Liberation Bridge, the Shopping Plaza of Workers's Glory, the Kim Il Sung Jogging Track (not as funny as the John L. Davenport Track at the Varsity Centre at the University of Toronto), and so on.

I heard of a gray market at the massive Dongdaemun market in central Seoul, so off I went to try and find this ethereal location where you could find bizarre items of all sorts on sale. A gray market, of which I hadn't heard prior to yesterday, differs from a black market in that the goods themselves aren't illegal, but the way in which they're being sold probably is (eg France '98 hats). It started off ordinary: there were cameras, laptops, PDAs and other electronics for sale on tarps on the street. They looked to be used and/or stolen. It got a little stranger, as I saw piles and piles of badminton rackets and birdies, some of the rackets looking to be relics from the Korean War based on how rusty they were. Then I began to see audio tapes, video tapes, obviously used jewelry and, the strangest sight of the day, a store selling VHS copies of Forrest Gump and other '90s movies and various sexual lotions on the outside, and nothing but sex toys on the inside.

It got weirder still. I saw people selling whatever they could. Clothes that looked to be their own, single units of watches, jewelry, cell phones and computers that looked like they might not work. There were many sets of rusty golf clubs, a pair of skis and, by God, even a hockey stick. There were records (those round black things that play music) for 50 cents each, pornography from the Soviet Union, used power tools, a handful of video games or CDs of both Korean and Western next to unrelated items. The arbitrary nature of what was being sold reminded me of Third World countries with collapsed economies where people sell whatever they can to survive. At the end of the road, the stores behind the stalls weren't stores anymore, they were rocky, unfinished rooms with walls that resembled caves. Inside many of them was either nothing or frightening heaps of scrap metal the size of a house.

I never thought I would get scared anywhere in Seoul, but there was something about the panic and absurdity of the gray market that made me intensely uncomfortable and disgusted. After a while, I stopped taking pictures and when I was done, I walked into the nearest subway station and went far, far away.

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