SEOUL — Areas around U.S. military bases will turn into virtual ghost towns this weekend, limiting some services, as millions of South Koreans pack highways to celebrate Chuseok, the country’s annual harvest festival.
South Korea’s second-biggest holiday, which is akin to Thanksgiving in the U.S., is Sunday, with the day before and after making it a three-day weekend.
Families return to their ancestral hometowns, where they visit their ancestors’ graves and prepare a ceremonial table of food in their honor. The traditional foods include songpyeon, a half-moon-shaped rice cake filled with sesame seeds or chestnut paste.
One of the most popular gifts exchanged during the holiday are boxes of Spam. While the gelatinous canned meat is often the subject of jokes in the U.S., it’s a staple in many Asian countries, a legacy of the American military’s presence during World War II and the Korean War.
About 30 million Koreans are expected to travel during the holiday, with the worst traffic expected Saturday.
For American servicemembers, off-base driving will be restricted. Monday will be a U.S. Forces Korea holiday.
U.S. military officials are using the occasion to encourage servicemembers to learn more about Korean traditions.
For example, the 2nd Infantry Division and U.S. Garrison–Red Cloud held their annual Chuseok reception Thursday for nearby Korean residents at Camp Casey in Dongducheon. More than 250 people attended, and spouses of 2ID leaders wore traditional Korean hanboks.
“The 2nd Infantry Division has a deep respect and appreciation for the rich Korean culture and is committed to building strong relationships with the communities surrounding our garrisons and units,” division spokesman Lt. Col. Joe Scrocca said. “The 2ID Chuseok reception helps build cultural appreciation and strengthen the close ties of friendship.”
South Korean’s largest holiday is Lunar New Year, which will next be celebrated on Feb. 10.