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Seafood market is largest in the nation

[Glimpse of Business in Seoul 27th in a series: Noryangjin Fisheries Market]

Dec 05,2008
An aerial view of the trading floor at Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market, Korea’s largest fisheries wholesale market located in Seoul. A great variety of seafood grabs the attention of customers. By Jeon Min-kyu

Scores of octopuses, five to a bundle, lie on a stone shelf in front of “Dongchang Sanghoe,” a four-square-meter retail shop at the Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market.

The paper sign on top reads “unconscious octopus,” words that frequently grab the attention of first-time visitors.

Two young female customers get intrigued enough to ask what that means. Soon, they get it as the retailer smacks the octopuses in the face.

“See, they are alive, just unconscious,” the retailer, a woman who seems to be in her 60s, says, pointing to the wriggling mollusks gasping for air.

Bargaining ends in seconds as the retailer cuts 1,000 won ($0.7) from 10,000 won for a bundle.

“It’s the first sale of the day that I’ve discounted,” the retailer says, handing over the octopuses wrapped in a black paper bag.

Founded in 1927, Noryangjin Market has long enjoyed fame as Korea’s largest seafood wholesale market, and arguably Asia’s as well.

The market, built on around a 75,000-square-meter area including a parking lot, is said to be bigger than Tsukiji in Tokyo, Japan’s flagship seafood market. Noryangjin moved to its current location in 1971 from the original site next to Seoul Station.

Around 4,000 people, including around 800 retail merchants, 180 wholesalers and a dozen auctioneers depend on the market for their livelihoods.

According to Noryangjin Fisheries Marketing, the company that manages the market, the volume of fish traded at the market amounts to 300 billion won annually. The market distributes around 40 percent of the seafood consumed in Seoul and surrounding Gyeonggi Province, the company said.

Customers look at shrimp on sale at Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market last weekend. By Jeon Min-kyu
All kinds of seafood, delivered from 200,000 fishermen across the country and imported from many countries, is sold and consumed at the market. Noryangjin, like many other wholesale markets, has a retail section.

“Any marine creature you can think of, you can see here,” said Kim Duck-ho, an official of the company.

The diversity of the seafood brings 30,000 visitors to the market every day, the company said. Foreign visitors number some 10,000 annually.

In August, “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern,” a well-known U.S. cable network show introducing rare cuisines across the world, visited Noryangjin Market to film an episode. It’s scheduled to air this month.

“The host and the staff of the show were excited by the market,” said Kim Who-nam, a Korean chef who introduces the market in the episode. “They said the market is so lively, and so Asian. They also liked finding many things such as live octopus and jeotgal that they cannot taste elsewhere.” Jeotgal refers to salted fish.

As the name signifies, the main business of the Noryangjin market is wholesale but it is relatively invisible to the public due its operating hours.

The wholesale part of the market opens at 1 a.m. and closes by 9 a.m.

Auctioneers put each item up for sale and 180 intermediary wholesalers, who have the exclusive right to attend the auctions at the market, bid. The traded items then are sold to retailers across the country.

Park Sun-gu, one of the auctioneers, has led the process for the past 28 years.

“It’s still tough to work when other people sleep. But it’s rewarding,” Park, 52, said.

Park said the reward comes from the fact that he and the market help those living in the metropolitan area taste seafood at cheaper prices.

In Wednesday’s auction, for instance, king crabs imported from Russia were traded at 15,000 won to 30,000 won each. Retailers at the market sold them at 27,000 won to 50,000 won. Outside, they are usually sold for over 60,000 won. Other bargains are also available.

Customers appreciate that.

Jung Sang-ku, 45, who runs a restaurant in Yeouido, bought butterfish at 70,000 won at a retail shop at the market.

“Prices here are relatively cheap. After all, there is no other cluster of fish stores in Seoul like this,” Jung said.

Facing many challenges, however, the market’s future is not guaranteed.

Some wholesale market rivals, including Garak Market in eastern Seoul, are growing.

And the ongoing economic turbulence is not helping.

“People eat seafood less than they used to. The trade volume has almost been halved compared with the hey-day,” said Kang Myung-il, 51, who represents the wholesalers at Nor-yangjin.

Chung Kyung-in, a 55-year-old merchant who has owned Jangheung Fisheries for 29 years, said there was a time he earned 200,000 won to 300,000 won a day in many deals.

Now, he says only two or three transactions occur a day.

The Noryangjin Fisheries Marketing is trying to solve the problem partly by modernizing, by rebuilding within a decade.

Some people are concerned that the plan may take away the market’s real appeal.

Joe McPherson, an American expat who runs a Web site about Korean food, said he loves Noryangjin more than many other shopping places in Korea.

He said the charm of Noryangjin comes from a shopping experience in a smelly but lively and energetic place.

“I hope they will not change it into a Costco,” McPherson said, referring to a big box wholesale store in the United States.

“Everything white and clean. I don’t want to see it at Noryangjin.”


By Moon Gwang-lip Staff Reporter [joe@joongang.co.kr]


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