Visiting Seoul's Artificial Limb District

There's a street in the Garwol-dong neighborhood lined with shops selling handcrafted prosthetic arms, legs, toes, fingers, eyes, breasts, lips, and every other body part imaginable.

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Mar 12 2015, 4:20pm

In December, a team of researchers at South Korea's Seoul National University unveiled the latest advances in artificial limbs: a new type of high-tech prosthetic that involves "smart skin" being attached to an artificial limb to restore the person's sense of touch. The simulated skin can be stretched over the entire prosthesis and is accoutered with ultra-thin single crystalline silicon nanoribbon, which allows people who use artificial limbs to feel heat, pressure, and moisture. The polymer that covers the sensors will even feel like warm human skin to anyone who touches it. South Korea possesses the most sophisticated and futuristic advances in prosthetic limbs.

These advancements haven't made it across town from Seoul National University to the Garwol-dong neighborhood, where artificial limbs are handcrafted in the back of shops clustered together on a single street. This is Seoul's artificial-limb district, where nine or so shops sell nothing but prosthetic arms, legs, toes, fingers, eyes, breasts, lips, and every other body part imaginable.

Inside one shop, I found employees hard at work constructing handcrafted limbs on worktables, with pristine examples of their efforts hanging in their window like Chinatown ducks. The shop next door, by contrast, had dusty appendages in its window; inside, I could see a guy watching TV, his bare feet resting on a table. Three lone ghostly hands were propped up in his window, silently waving off into the distance.

In Korea, it's common to have similar shops clustered together on one road. There are streets lined with shops strictly selling pet supplies, jewelry, potted plants, jokbal (boiled pigs feet), and naengmyeon (North Korean cold noodles). When an area becomes associated for a type of good or service, it attracts more buyers. This sort of grouping is called "agglomeration"; the idea is that individual shops do better when they share the masses of customers they attract together. There are American examples of this phenomenon too, like Manhattan's Lighting District.

Farther down the street, I found a shop called Doo Son Uhe Soo (in English, "Two Hands"). A man saw me taking photos of the window display and stepped outside. "Do you want to come in?" he asked.

Inside, I was offered a cup of tea and the opportunity to photograph the piles and piles of artificial limbs. A far cry from the high-tech heat sensing prosthetics developed at South Korea's Seoul National University, Two Hands' prosthetics looked like department store mannequin limbs made by tools found in a high school shop class. Passing a box of fingers, I went to the back of the shop, where an older man was constructing limbs with molds, plaster casts, and blowtorches. I watched as his co-worker put the final touches on a pair of hands and feet, diligently pouring a mold into a forearm and mixing it around with a wooden stick.

There are few places where an entire street of shops like this could stay in business, but due to the Korean War and ongoing tensions with the North, South Korea sadly has a long history with land mines, raising the demand for prosthetics. In 2009, the LA Times reported that an estimated 1,000 civilians nationwide—mostly poor, uneducated farmers—have been hurt or killed by some of the 1.2 million mines buried in the Korean landscape. I was unable to find more recent numbers, but mines remain an active threat.

The mines, made of both metal and plastic, can be lethal. Some are designed to explode twice, once at ground level and again after bouncing six feet into the air. Those who escape death often end up missing a leg, an arm, a hand. South Korea has not adopted the Mine Ban Treaty, and the government insists on the military necessity of antipersonnel mines while still acknowledging their negative humanitarian impact.

Inside Two Hands, the man with glasses turned to me. "Chin says it's all right if you to take pictures in his shop," he said, referring to the competing artificial limb shop next door.

Inside, Chin was hard at work constructing a foot, making final adjustments with a screwdriver as a patient customer who was missing a leg waited for the final modifications. When complete, the final artificial appendage was brought out. The man inspected his new leg, screwed it in, and practically jumped for joy.

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