2015 Travel Diary day 5: The UN Memorial Cemetery and the start of the MERS scare

Gangneung, Tuesday 2 June.

Today promises to be a relatively low-key affair. As promised, Eun-jin arrives at the hotel at 8:50 to take me to the bus station, and I buy my ticket for the 9:30 to Busan, boarding a coach with maybe a dozen people on it, including a sailor in a smart white naval uniform.

The route follows the East coast most of the way, and we barrel along the highway with the sea to our left. There’s the usual 20 minute rest stop midway, to enable us to get a coffee and kimbap, and we arrive at Busan’s main bus terminal at Nopodong soon after 2pm, earlier than I had been anticipating.1 As I wait a short while for my friend Nam-hee to meet me (I am about half an hour early) I make a couple of phone calls to thank various people in Gangeung and Seoul who had extended me kindnesses so far during my stay.

Nam-hee soon arrives, and we get into her car without a stated plan other than that we were going to meet up with her sister for an early dinner at around 4:30. But I had a plan of my own, and Nam-hee was happy to oblige: a visit to the UN Memorial Cemetery (재한유엔기념공원), which I had not quite managed to visit the previous year.

UN Memorial Cemetery

When the South Korean and US armies were pushed back to Busan in the initial weeks of the Korean War, there was obviously a need for a place to bury fatalities who had not already had a hasty interment where they had fallen on the battlefield. A space was found in what is now the Nam-gu area, and that became the place where UN casualties were buried during the ensuring three years of war. In 1959 it became a permanent UN graveyard following an agreement between the Republic of Korea and the UN.

The UK section of the cemetery

The graveyard is immaculately kept. A guard at the entrance almost salutes you as you enter, asking if you are from the family of one of the deceased soldiers: I suspect that a special welcome is granted to relatives. The graves are laid out by nation, row upon row of identical stones, neatly laid out in front of their national flag. The main nation not represented is the U.S., whose soldiers are flown back to their mother country for burial. But for the British, Turkish, Belgian, Canadian and other forces who fought against the North Koreans and Chinese in the Korean War, there is a corner of central Busan where they have their final resting place. Of the 2,300 people laid to rest here, the UK makes up the largest proportion, with 885 bodies. The Turkish contingent comes next, with 462. Most of the US dead were repatriated for burial, though 36 can be found in Busan.

Visiting the cemetery is an emotional experience. Even though you might have no family connection with the war, you have read of the battles and skirmishes, and of the regiments that fought there. But to see the graves before you, and the names of those regiments and their dead (both found and unfound) inscribed on the various memorials, brings the war and its loss of life out of the pages of the history books and into a grim reality. Here lie the bodies of young men [of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and more, most of whom had never heard of Korea before they set off from home, but who were doing their duty for their country which had chosen to support this first military action taken by the recently formed United Nations.

Man Grilling Meat

After a calming half hour or so wandering around the cemetery we head off into Seomyeon for an early dinner, and crack open a beer while waiting for Min to arrive. The name of the restaurant proclaims its unique feature: 고기 굽는 男子 (or in 100% Hangeul, 고기 굽는 남자) – man grilling meat.2  In London, I can’t think of a Korean restaurant where, if you order a table top barbecue, the staff don’t cook it for you, or at least oversee what you are doing: the health and safety police would not allow it any other way (obviously, people can’t be trusted to cook their own pork properly…) In Korea where maybe the health and safety culture is less developed (witness the Sewol ferry disaster as evidence?) and where people have been used to grilling their own meat since they started eating, the supervision of the grilling by waiters is less obvious, or even non-existent. At this establishment however, the grilling is done by the waiters, all of whom are male. Whether this resulted in a predominantly female clientele I am unable to say, as we were there early during the evening service, before the restaurant started filling up. I can vouch that the meat was very good though.

As we eat we catch up on what has been happening in each other’s lives in the year or two since we last saw each other. I’m particularly interested in hearing about Nam-hee’s son, who had recently arrived in the world (and was the reason I couldn’t see her) when I was in Busan the previous year. We also chat about things going on in Korea. And then Nam-hee casually mentions something about “Mellerseu” and how worrying it is. She recommends that I get myself a facemask before I head back to Seoul, except that the best quality ones had all sold out.

I slow her down a bit. This was the first time I had heard of MERS, and before I could re-engage in conversation I had to do a quick bit of googling to find out all about the latest health scare – Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. As we continued talking the sisters advised me that the incidents of the disease at the moment were confined to the Seoul Metropolitan area, and so I should be fine down in Gyeongnam. I filed away the conversation in my memory, thinking that this was a trivial health scare which would blow over in a couple of days. Of course, I was wrong.

Over the next couple of days, hysteria began to mount. All the TV news bulletins led with the story, with details of the latest cases barked out in alarmist tones, and the learned health professionals discussing the spread of the disease in more measured dialogue. The tone of the broadcasts was anything but comforting. In Sancheong my friend Kyung-sook was concerned on my behalf, but in such a situation the only way to avoid being infected was to isolate yourself on a mountain somewhere. Sancheong was as good a place as any to do that, but I had things to do back in Seoul, and a flight to London booked for the following Monday and while staying in the Jirisan area for an indeterminate period had its attractions I had my doubts as to whether my employer or my wife would be sympathetic. Besides which, I have the superstitious tendency to think that the time of your death is already predetermined, and there’s not much you can do about it. And eating plenty of kimchi is meant to protect you against anything, anyhow. So my travel plans remained unchanged.

The MERS virus. Image source: Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
The MERS virus. Image source: Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

As the days unfolded, there seemed to emerge a slight polarisation of attitudes: to exaggerate and over-simplify the situation, on the one hand most foreigners I spoke with were of the opinion that the only way to catch MERS was either to engage in sexual congress with a camel or to visit a hospital where MERS patients were being treated. I had no plans of doing either. On the other hand, the more extreme local view, as I was to discover, was that even to be in a subway carriage in which a MERS sufferer had travelled would lay you open to the disease.

And in fact the consensus that emerged later was that most MERS patients caught the infection in hospital, as family members visited patients to give them care and comfort. But at the time it was the unpredictable pattern of infection that was causing public nervousness.

While I was in the south of the country, I was trying to arrange companions for dinner during my last weekend in Seoul. It was on Kakaotalk and Facebook that these two divergent views emerged as I monitored the responses. A couple of days later, one Korean friend said:

“Hey, the MERS thing is getting serious and my friends are telling me I’m putting people at risk if I go out and meet them since I take public transportation and such. Don’t want to cause unnecessary worry. [When I said I was planning to meet up with you] my Korean friends were like ‘you’re not worried about your foreigner friends?’ and gave me an earful.”

It was touching that she didn’t mind if she herself had MERS. She just didn’t want to pass it on to a foreigner.

Another friend said “I’m not going to be able to make it [to dinner] either. Our theatre is in crisis because of the MERS thing.” And indeed events that rely on tourists were hit by the scare. I was the beneficiary of this nervousness on 6 June, when the Yeongsanjae was much less crowded than an average year. But the lack of tourism and other impacts soon became a serious problem for the Korean economy, and the Central Bank had to cut interest rates.

In between these two extreme attitudes there were the regular folks who were happy to go out and about, taking a few normal precautions. When I arrived in Seoul on the Friday my host for the evening gave me some vitamin supplements and some industrial-strength disinfectant hand-wash, with strict instructions that I should take the pills morning and evening. I did. And I am alive. But whether there is any causation between the two I somewhat doubt. Her concern for my wellbeing was very touching though. Korea was declared MERS-free on midnight on 23 December.

The reception lobby of the Busan Business Motel
The reception lobby of the Busan Business Motel

But back to Busan on Tuesday 2 June. Beer and soju help the meat go down, and for once I don’t over-indulge on the protein, leaving space for the soup and carbohydrate to follow. Dinner over, 2차 is a very civilised cup of tea at in the rather swish lounge of the Lotte Hotel. By this time I’m flagging somewhat and then Nam-hee locates a hotel just across the street (the newly-opened Busan Business Motel) where I can crash out for the night for about $70.

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  1. Nopodong is about 12 kilometers north of Busan’s central business district, and confusingly the terminal has historically been known in English as the Central Bus Terminal. Realising the slight illogicality, the City authorities now seem to be trying to rebrand it as the Express Bus Terminal. []
  2. 고기 굽는 남자 is a grammatical construction identical to Bear Eating Greens, 나물 먹는 곰, where I had had my first meal of the trip this year []

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