Even today, the world has its work to do

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Even today, the world has its work to do

The Lunar New Year holiday is one of those rare times when Seoul is free from its standard hustle and bustle. For Koreans, it's the season to dress up to greet the kith and kin in their hometown. Those who remain in Seoul can enjoy streets free of any traffic, tasting the sweetness of three days off. As you read this page in your pajamas, relaxed as can be, the world must go on -- even during the holidays. There are even people for whom the Lunar New Year's day means more rather than less trouble. Meet Kang Hyun-jung, 23, whose shift at McDonald's begins at 9 a.m.; train conductor Youn Geum-jung, 49; and policeman Lee Young-ran, 33. They are but three of the people out there keeping things rolling at the moment.

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Want fries? Will it be for here or to go?

A Big Mac may not be your traditional festival treat to start a new year. But just in case, Kang Hyun-jung, 23, a college student working part-time at the Golden Arches in Insa-dong, central Seoul, is ready to feed you.

Wednesday morning at 7 a.m., Ms. Kang braved the piercing cold to show up for her shift. After quickly changing into a cherry- pink uniform, Ms. Kang tackles her first task -- counting ketchup packets -- before manning the cash register. This has been Ms. Kang's routine for the last three years, rain or shine, solar and Lunar New Year's days included.

"I may be the first person my customers meet that day," Ms. Kang says. "That cheers me up."

A junior food science major at Seoul National University of Technology, Ms. Kang is at the right place for her part-time job. To boot, Ms. Kang is the Insa-dong McDonald's mascot, thanks to her dimply smile. Customers who want to kick off their Lunar New Year with a Big Mac fix can see her beaming face until 2 p.m. today.

Surprisingly, Ms. Kang volunteered to work on the holiday. "There are some advantages to working on holidays," Ms. Kang says, while handing her first customer an egg sandwich at 7:40 a.m.

The perks? For starters, how about a pair of socks? Those who work the holiday shift get a free pair of stylish McDonald's socks.

Due to the holiday, McDonald's opens at a comparatively late 9 a.m., and draws only sporadic customer traffic all day. There will be no early morning customers with bloodshot eyes, reeking of alcohol and ordering corn soup for their hangovers.

Normally, McDonald's customers are mainly local office workers. But on big holidays, Ms. Kang hands a lot of Happy Meals to elderly gentlemen, who are happy to be badgered by their grandsons for those plastic toys.

By afternoon, more families pop in. Sometimes, mothers will press Ms. Kang for an extra free Happy Meal toys, or housewives will ask for a discount of 200 won (17 cents) from 8,200 won.

Ms. Kang remains upbeat. After all, it's time to celebrate.

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All aboard! For a train man, holiday is 'literal emergency'

Forget about family fun or traditions. The Lunar New Year holiday has always been the most hectic time of year for Youn Geum-jung, whose work entails riding the peninsula's rails for eight hours a day or more as a train conductor.

At this time of year, more than 2 million Koreans return to their hometowns by train, according to Korean National Railroad's Yang Hong-man. Korail must prepare at least six weeks in advance for this mass migration.

"It's literally an emergency for all of us," says Mr. Yang, who oversees passenger transport. And Mr. Youn has been at the heart of this yearly maelstrom for 28 years.

His daily schedule during this three-day Lunar New Year weekend will bear some resemblance to last Tuesday, when he worked aboard the train to Yeosu, in South Jeolla province, followed by a night's "sleep" in a train compartment so compact he could not lie down.

Or perhaps he'll handle the bustling Gyeongbu route to Busan, a veritable cascade of humanity even on average days. Whatever his assignments, certain things are assured: There will be no playing the holiday game yut nori with his wife and three children, no indulgent meals of beef and rice cake soup, no donning traditional garb. Mr. Youn's holiday festivities amount to wolfing down some grub in the train dining car and chatting up a few lonely passengers.

At 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Mr. Youn was at Seoul Station preparing for the six-hour journey to Yeosu, at the bottom of the peninsula.

As passengers stream onto the platform, he bows deeply and welcomes them aboard. As the train slowly rumbles into motion, he checks the platform for tardy passengers, then joins the ride. For the next six hours, he will visit each coach, checking temperature and humidity and attending to passengers' needs.

"Mr. Youn is the most experienced man we've got ?that's why he's in charge of the Seoul-Busan route," says Lee Yong-won, a manager of the train crew department.

For the friendly, rotund Mr. Youn, being a conductor is easy -- even during the holiday crush -- compared to the 1970s.

Back then, passengers stayed up all night near the station to buy a ticket; it was first-come, first-serve and people would fight for tickets. In 1978, Mr. Youn saw one man crushed to death as he ran for a train ticket.

Although Mr. Youn is happy to be free of such worries nowadays, his wife and children are disappointed at his extended absences, especially during holidays.

That situation won't likely change. "If I won the lottery, say 1 billion won, then I could stay with my family for the New Year," he says jokingly, but he does not appear too interested in winning the lottery. Just before the train leaves Seoul Station, he says: "Even though I cannot be with my family for the Lunar New Year, at least I'm here helping other people enjoy their holidays."

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Sometimes, her work can be a matter of life or death

Almost everybody in Korea knows the emergency toll-free number 119. But how about 112? Not every expatriate is familiar with these three digits, a direct link to a police hotline that can protect you from crime. It takes only three minutes for police officers to locate a suspect when phoned, according to Lim Guk-bin, a police major at Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency. Police dispatchers are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year -- including, of course, the Lunar New Year.

Police dispatcher Lee Young-ran will be working the graveyard shift on the Lunar New Year. She reports to duty at 9 p.m. and clocks out 12 hours later.

Ms. Lee and 106 fellow dispatchers receive more than 15,000 calls a day at their office in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul. From her cubicle, armed with a computer and telephone, she routes incoming messages to the main computer. Then the center dispatches the reports to officers, based on priority and location.

Tuesday night around 9 p.m., she received her last call of the day. A Japanese expatriate had mistaken the number for a different hotline. Korean, English and Japanese are spoken by the 112 hotline dispatchers.

Once on the line, Ms. Lee buckles down. "I have to be prompt and alert every single second -- it's a matter of life and death for the people out there," she says.

Sometimes, people pull stunts that sink Ms. Lee's normally high morale. There are folks who curse the police force, drunks who mutter unintelligibly and pranksters. A young woman recently called to report her boyfriend as a criminal. "She was just so mad at her boyfriend she wanted to get him arrested," Ms. Lee recalls.

Married with two daughters, aged 3 and 5, Ms. Lee has been on the job for more than three years. The hardest part of her work is neither the odd working hours nor the ceaseless phone calls; it's when her elder daughter hangs onto her navy blue uniform and says, "Do you really have to go, Mommy?"

For the last three Lunar New Years, Ms. Lee hasn't been able to visit her parents-in-law in Yeosu, South Jeolla province, never mind her own hometown. Although a wife is still considered bound to serve her parents-in-law -- at least on holidays -- Ms. Lee has been an involuntary exception.

Nonetheless, she feels lucky to be what she is. "My parents-in-law are proud enough of me to grant my absence at the Lunar New Year's celebration," she says.

With her husband and two daughters away for the holiday, Ms. Lee will be alone when her shift ends at 9 a.m. tomorrow. How will she welcome the Year of the Sheep? "Maybe I'll go out to a movie by myself."


by Chun Su-jin

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