Mr. Lee said he decided to fish because he could make about $1,700 a month, much more than he could earn in Seoul pouring lattes or busing tables. The high salaries stem from the chronic labor shortages in these occupations during the boom years when South Koreans shunned them as too dirty, leaving them to Asian migrant laborers.
Another allure is that many of these menial jobs seem to be recession-proof, workers and labor experts say.
Na Deuk-won, who owns a school in Seoul that trains back-scrubbers and bathhouse masseuses, says enrollment has jumped 50 percent this year, to 180 students, because of a sudden influx of university graduates and laid-off office workers.
“Even in a recession, people need their back scrubbed,” Mr. Na said.
At his Dongdaemun Bath Academy, students gathered in a tiled shower room to learn how to scrub naked customers with a pair of sponge mitts. One, Hyun Sung-chul, 48, said he had been supervising 50 workers as a manager at a construction company before losing his job in January.
At first, he said, he hid his enrollment in scrubbing school from family and friends, though he told his wife. When he finally confided about his career change to a friend, he was surprised when the friend confessed interest as well.
“He told me, ‘Teach me when I get fired, too!’ ” Mr. Hyun said. “I think people come into this field only when they are afraid that their livelihood is at risk.”
In Kunghang, many of the new crab fishermen recruited by Mr. Jeong expressed regrets about their choice.
“This is so smelly and dirty, it makes me want to vomit,” Kwak Jung-ho, 33, a branch manager of a cellphone store in Seoul before it closed this year, said as he cut tangled crabs out of a net.
“If my parents knew what I was doing now, they would pity me,” he said. “Now, I look at the ocean and think, I should have worked harder at the cellphone store, and be a better man for my family.”