Fine fare - fresh eel, kimchi, garlic and a local rice brew - but few diners at a famed eel restaurant in Yangpyeong County. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

YANGPYEONG – The bouquet of freshly caught eel grilling over an open flame swirls around the interior of the “Peace Barbeque Eel” restaurant, but there is no corresponding boom of good cheer.

In normal times, this noted restaurant, set on a hillside in Yangpyeong, a scenic county of high country and river valleys east of Seoul that is famed among  hikers and skiers, could expect to be packed with noisy diners celebrating the Lunar New Year holiday.

But as the Year of the Ox dawns, it is near-silent.

In the main dining room, just two tables are occupied. A dozen sit empty. And the group dining room next door is a vacuum. Social distancing mandates to counter the Covid-19 crisis dictate that no more than four people can gather at one time, in one place. And, though shaded by parasols against the bright winter sunlight, the outdoor tables are unoccupied.

The staff are reluctant to discuss matters.  

“I am just the eel cutter,” says a morose waiter, nodding toward the scissors he uses to slice the fare, when asked about the dearth of visitors on this, one of Korea’s two biggest national holidays.

The Peace Eel Barbeque Restaurant is virtually empty, despite the long Lunar New Year’s holiday. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

Things are little different in “Moonlit,” a countryside destination cafe, 30-minutes drive away. It’s a fine sunny day but the al fresco terraces, balconies and gardens overlooking a stream gurgling through wooded hills are largely empty, but for a sprinkling of families.  

Still, some in the sector are upbeat.

Take KC Lee,  a cheery 60-something retiree who runs a string of pensions – an increasingly common vacation option in a South Korea which is broadening the base of its service sector – in the Yangpyeong hills.

“I have not been that impacted,” says the former Starbucks executive. “People have not been able to travel abroad, so I have had steady business.”

But while Lee’s five pensions have enjoyed a steady number of family visits, other businesses down-valley are facing problems.

“The bigger pensions have taken a hit,” he said – a reference to the current impossibility of group travel in a highly communal society where a tradition exists of classmates, alumni and co-workers frequently banding together to travel and socialize by the van-load or coach-load.

This is the situation in a nation that, in the just-passed Year of the Rat, passed the Covid-19 test with flying colors.

Pensions line the lanes winding through the hills of getaway country Yangyeong. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

Winning the containment battle…

Despite being the first country to suffer a mass outbreak after China, Seoul’s Moon Jae-in administration declined to follow Beijing’s prescription of harshly enforced lockdowns.

Instead, it vowed to tackle the pandemic via open, democratic principles. This meant – and continues to mean – no lockdowns.

Instead, mass testing and high-tech contact tracing were marshaled to identify, quarantine and treat the infected as early as possible. These measures were buttressed by a tiered series of social distancing  measures that have been flexibly adjusted as the infection situation dictates.  

The measures, were, on the whole, accepted in good faith by a population that habitually practices high standards of personal hygiene and is routinely accustomed to wearing masks to fend off seasonal flu infections and fearsome air pollution.

But while there has been little of the civil disobedience seen in the United States and Europe, as of last month, there  were signs that public patience was starting to fracture.  Some businesses are reportedly ignoring social distancing mandates, and civil lawsuits are being deployed by associations of cafe and gym owners to fight back against the strictures.

The government, which had urged the citizenry to refrain from travel and large-scale family gatherings over the four-day Lunar New Year’s holiday, delivered some good news on Saturday.

With new infections at manageable levels – daily numbers are hovering around 300-400 – health authorities announced a slight amelioration of social distancing rules.  As of Monday, restaurants, cafes and indoor gymnasiums and health facilities will have their closing hour extended from 9:00PM until 10:00PM.

However, the ban on meetings of more than four people remains.

The point man in the government’s anti-Covid task force frankly accepted that public discontent factored into the decision-making process.

“It is a decision that we made while adhering faithfully to principles, but in consideration of public fatigue,” Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said during a session of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters on Saturday.

But Chung faces a ticklish task keeping the citizenry focused in the months to come. While Korea has been successful in containment, it is coming late to vaccinations.

The near-empty Moonlit coffee shop in Yangpyeong is emblematic of the pounding South Korea’s food and beverage sector has taken. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

Late to the vaccine race

The national inoculation program, starting with the Astra Zeneca vaccine, will not get underway before February 26. And amid massive global demand for vaccines and consequent production shortfalls, the broader program is still many months away.

The only people who will be vaccinated in the first quarter, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), will be high-risk workers at hospitals, sanatoriums and elderly care facilities.

The elderly – those aged 65 or older – and those working at other medical facilities will have to wait until the second quarter.

And those suffering from chronic conditions, as well as the broader adult population aged 19-64, will have to wait until the third quarter.

The aim of the KDCA is to have 70% of the population vaccinated by September.  That does not look good compared with certain countries that largely failed at pandemic containment, so which have taken a more urgent approach to vaccination.

The numbers tell the story. According to data from Worldometer, the US has suffered 1,493 Covid-19 deaths per million of population, while the UK has suffered 1,717. South Korea, by contrast has suffered just 30.

But as of this weekend, the US (population: 328 million) had deployed 66 million vaccinations, while the UK (population: 66 million) had carried out nearly 15 million.

Of Korea’s 51 million people, only a handful – those who work with the US Forces stationed in Korea, and who have benefitted from American programs – have been vaccinated.

“Korea announced that they did well, and it was one of the most successful countries in the world and in my professional view, all that was OK,”  Jung Sun-jae, a professor at the Medical School of the elite Yonsei Univesity in Seoul, said of the pandemic containment.

“Now we have vaccines, and Korea was not as alert as other countries like the US and UK, so made a relatively later step into the vaccine competition,” she said.

Still, there may be an upside even to lateness.

Never before have so many vaccines been rushed so through so many regulatory processes so quickly. The fact that Korea will have an in-advance view of vaccines’ effects on other populations could prove positive. Other national programs will offer proof of safety and efficacy  – or not – for those reluctant to vaccinate.

“People are seeing if there are any adverse reactions,” said Jung. “They don’t want to be vaccinated until they have to.”

But this combination of slow government vaccination rollout and a potentially cautious tendency among the population to get jabbed will slow down herd immunity, she added.

Indeed, the KDCA does not anticipate herd immunity being achieved until November.   

Hence Seoul must rely on its proven containment programs and its disciplined but increasingly fatigued population for most of what may be an unhappy new year.

A dry stream and a slow flow of customers at this Yangpyeong cafe as an uncertain Year of the Ox dawns. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times