Millions take to S. Korean roads for holiday

Millions of South Koreans began travelling to home towns Tuesday as the annual Lunar New Year exodus got under way despite concerns about the country's worst outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

More than 31 million people, 62 percent of the population, will be on the move between Tuesday and Sunday, up 3.2 percent from a year earlier, the transport ministry predicted.

Highways were jammed on the eve of the holiday, but travel to and from home towns was expected to cause fewer headaches this year because of the long break. The February 2-4 public holiday is followed by the weekend this year.

About 2.6 million cars have already left the capital or would leave later Tuesday, the Korea Expressway Corp said.

Railway authorities said tickets for trains departing Seoul on Tuesday had already sold out, with 414,000 passengers set to travel by rail during the day.

Weather officials have urged drivers to take care, citing icy conditions on some provincial roads even though a thaw has begun after an unusually bitter and lengthy cold spell.

Relatives separated by the world's last Cold War frontier will gather near the border for annual events publicising the plight of divided families.

North Korea has officially observed the Lunar New Year since 2003. This year it comes ahead of the 69th birthday of leader Kim Jong-Il on February 16, a public holiday.

As in China, South Korean families gather to pay respects to ancestors and visit relatives and friends on Lunar New Year's Day. More and more people, however, are using the break to visit resorts or go abroad.

Hotels and condominiums at ski resorts are full up and South Korean carriers have been fully booked.

Airport authorities said some 588,900 passengers were expected to travel abroad, the highest number in seven years, between Tuesday and Sunday.

Flights bound for Southeast Asian countries, southern China and Oceania were fully booked throughout this week.

Some regions hit by foot-and-mouth disease were facing a grim holiday.

People were advised not to travel to areas hit by the highly contagious animal disease, which has seen nearly three million livestock culled since November 29.

The agriculture ministry said all visitors should undergo disinfection before they enter any of the 141 places hit by the outbreak.