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In Seoul, Spam finds its niche as luxury gift

SEOUL -- Stroll into an expensive department store and walk straight past the $180 watermelon with a ribbon twirled just so around its stem. Don't bother with the tea in a butterfly-shaped tin for $153, or with the gift boxes of Belgian chocolates or French cheeses.

If you're looking for a gift that bespeaks elegance and taste, you might try Spam. The luncheon meat might be the subject of satire in the United States, but in South Korea it is positively classy. With $136 million in sales, South Korea is the largest market in the world outside the United States for Spam.

But here, the pink luncheon meat with its gelatinous shell is deemed too nice to buy for oneself, and 40 percent of the Spam sold here is in the form of gifts.

''Spam really is a luxury item," said Han Geun Rae, 43, an impeccably dressed fashion buyer who was loading gift boxes of Spam into a cart at Shinseyge department store before the recent Chusok holiday.

Chusok is the Korean equivalent of Thanksgiving, the biggest gift-giving occasion of the year. On this one holiday alone, Korean distributor CJ Corp. estimates, 8 million cans change hands.

Han's intended recipients were her employees, among them a young single guy and a married woman with children. ''Everybody loves it. It is so easy and convenient," she said.

Koreans take their Spam seriously and seem mystified about why it is a subject of parody among Americans.

''I can't understand what is funny about Spam," said Jeon Pyoung Soo, a CJ Corp. executive who is brand manager here for Spam.

Jeon recalled a June visit to Austin, Minn., where Spam's manufacturer, Hormel Foods Corp., has set up a Spam museum devoted to the history and cult of Spam.

''Everybody was laughing and smiling but me," said Jeon, 27, who went to business school in the United States and is fluent in English. ''I knew all the words, but I didn't get the joke."

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