The view from the bar of the Seoul Foreign Correspondents Club looks west, over the spire of the red-brick Anglican church and the courtyard of the British Embassy 18 floors below, onto the lush grounds of the 600-year-old Toksugung Palace on the far side of busy Taepyongno Boulevard.
In 1910, 4,000 years of unbroken royal rule for Korea ended inside Toksugung's walls with the abdication of the last king of the Chosun dynasty. But these days, the palace is a busy backdrop for new beginnings, not endings: After getting married at nearby city hall, newlyweds come to the compound to take their formal wedding pictures and to seek the blessing of Confucian priests who reside there.
During the 45 minutes or so I spend over coffee at the club bar with our man in Seoul, Oles Gadacz, and Tokyo-based Asia Editor Jim Treece, a half dozen bridal parties pull up to the palace's side gate across the street. Exiting from shiny black hired Hyundai Grandeurs or Kia Credos sedans, they scatter across the palace grounds in flurries of white bridal lace, dark suits and chattering good humor.
Oles allows that he has not seen the palace grounds so busy in a couple of years - and on a Wednesday morning at that.
This rush of new brides, we agree, must be a positive economic sign. Getting married requires some measure of faith in the future, after all, some sense by the participants that things are OK. It helps to have a job, too.
But you don't have to read tea leaves or count weddings in the park to see that Korea is emerging from its long economic winter. The signs are everywhere these days.
From the crowded, tony department stores of Myong-dong to the teeming bustle of the It'aewon shopping bazaar around U.S. 8th Army Headquarters to the crush of new construction along the Han River, this city virtually thrums with energy and refound optimism.
Coming off a year of layoffs, belt-tightening hunger and soul-sapping uncertainty as the economy collapsed around them, Koreans in the first quarter splurged on themselves in a shopping spree that drove gross domestic product up 4.6 percent.
Six months ago, leading stores here were advertising 'IMF sales,' and many restaurants offered bargain-priced 'IMF menus' - bitter, pointed references to the enforced austerity imposed on the country by the International Monetary Fund. Anything to snare a customer in an economy that had fallen for four consecutive quarters.
Indeed, this country faced widespread civil unrest last year because of rising unemployment and the breakdown of the jobs-for-life social contract. But for many here, those days not so long ago appear to be getting increasingly difficult to relate to.
At the ultra chi-chi Hyundai Department Store - where the only entrance is through valet parking - patrons are clustered around the ground-floor display counters of Gucci, Versace, Armani, Ralph Lauren, Prada, Cartier, et al., at 3: 30 on a Tuesday afternoon.
(Stand outside next to the valet lane, and it's obvious that BMW and Mercedes are the two top-selling car brands in Korea.)
On the sixth floor, men's wear, business is less rushed but still respectable for mid-Tuesday. As he is trying to talk me into a nice, contrast-stitched Hugo Boss gray flannel marked down to $575 from about $750, clerk/tailor Chong Soo-Young is saying that, yes, he thinks the worst may be over.
'I am very happy to see many of my old customers coming back again,' Chong says. 'Things are much better, but we must not get overconfident.'
(Unfortunately for the likable Chong, any potential for a sale evaporates with the realization that a 40R is the largest size he has in stock.)
No one seems more surprised by the apparent speed of this recovery than the locals themselves.
Han Kum-Hee, who tracks the auto industry for Merrill Lynch International in Seoul, concedes that the strength of the rebound caught her short.
In November and December, it was tough even to see a bottom to the downturn. But through April, new-car sales were up 47 percent over the year-earlier period, to 338,000 units, and the industry is looking forward to a full-year gain of 20 percent.
In January, Han had predicted a 13 percent recovery for domestic auto sales this year; in May, when I visited her, she had just revised her forecast upward to a 36 percent rise, to about 1.09 million light vehicles.
A bigger surprise: 'The recovery in unit sales will be led by cars over 2.0 liters, not by minivehicles,' she says. Reflecting Korea's economic woes, sales of budget-priced minis exploded from less than 6 percent of the market in 1997 to 20 percent in 1998.
Han says she now expects sales of minis to slip back to 'more sustainable' levels while full-sized cars over 2.0 liters expand to about 28 percent of the market over the next two years.
'In the last couple of years, car purchases were being made on the basis of pure need,' she says. 'I think we have turned the corner and will see a return to a normal preference-driven market.'
Leaving the press club, Jim Treece and I share a taxi back toward It'aewon and our hotels. Traffic in the central business core flows well along 10-lane-wide Taepyongno Boulevard, but we are soon mired in a colossal, unyielding jam on the streets further south.
Another sign of Korea's return to vibrant, good health: Seoul, once again, has a traffic problem.
James R. Crate can be reached at [email protected]