THE BIG CHILL: South Korea

86,000 stranded as 'tropical' Jeju freezes

South Koreans enjoying a tug-of-war at a winter festival in Gangwon province over the weekend as the country shivered to a cold wave with temperatures dropping to as low as -20 deg C.
South Koreans enjoying a tug-of-war at a winter festival in Gangwon province over the weekend as the country shivered to a cold wave with temperatures dropping to as low as -20 deg C.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Singaporean Claire Chen moved to South Korea's southern island Jeju thinking it was the country's own tropical paradise.

Over the weekend, however, the 38-year-old housewife got a shock when she woke up to 11cm of snowfall - the most in 32 years - as a cold spell hit the country, sending temperatures diving to as low as -20 deg C. Jeju, usually warm, was a freezing -6 deg C on Sunday.

Ms Chen's father, who was going to visit her, was stuck in Hong Kong for a night as Jeju International Airport cancelled more than 1,000 flights from Saturday due to heavy snow - up to 1m in mountainous regions - and strong winds.

About 86,000 travellers were affected by a 45-hour shutdown at the airport, one of the busiest in the country as Jeju is a popular tourist destination. Flights resumed yesterday, after temperatures warmed to 3 deg C, with the first plane departing before 3pm.

The authorities said Jeju Airport, Seoul's Gimpo Airport and Gimhae Airport in Busan will operate round the clock until today to clear the backlog of flights.

Over 1,000 people had to camp overnight at Jeju Airport when their flights were cancelled, sleeping on chairs and mats. Water, hot tea and snacks were distributed to those waiting around yesterday.

Ms Chen said she was initially so excited to see so much snow that she went out of her house to take a selfie video. But she became worried when the snow storm did not subside. "We didn't expect the cold as we thought Jeju would be warm," she said. "We should have stocked up the fridge more."

In Seoul, temperatures plunged to -18 deg C, the lowest since January 2001. There was no snow, but the Han river, which runs through the middle of the South Korean capital, was mostly frozen.

Some 40 cases of frozen or burst water meters and pipes were reported nationwide over the weekend, according to local reports.

In Gyeonggi province, near Seoul, icy roads wreaked havoc on traffic, with more than 70 accidents reported in the first 11 hours of Sunday alone.

According to the Health Ministry, more people sought treatment for winter-related illnesses like hypothermia and frostbite last week, compared to the week before.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2016, with the headline '86,000 stranded as 'tropical' Jeju freezes'. Print Edition | Subscribe