Stay safe & healthy
South Korea is a very safe country, with reported crime rates much lower than in the U.S. and comparable to most European Union countries. Crime rates are comparable to other safe places such as Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong and it is safe to walk around at night even in the major cities. Violent crime is rare toward locals and tourists alike. For the most part, the only foreigners who encounter trouble in South Korea are drunken ones that provoke fights at bars or clubs.
If you do happen to encounter any trouble, police stations are located in every district, usually in walking distance from subway entrances and bus stops. While most policemen won't understand English, they do have interpreters on-call that can assist you.
South Korea is a very ethnically homogeneous country, and for many South Koreans this is a point of pride. Discrimination against non-Koreans is systematic and there is no anti-discrimination legislation whatsoever. Nevertheless South Korea is changing. 3.5% of residents today were born overseas, a number expected to rise to 10% by 2020. Negative perceptions of foreigners is reducing all the time. As recently as 2000 it was not advisable for a foreign man to hold hands in public with a South Korean woman and today it is almost no issue at all. Any horror stories you hear should be taken in context of the positive changes that are happening.
The unfortunate reality is that being Caucasian will mostly give you a free pass from experiencing much if any racial abuse. When applying for work in South Korea, especially in teaching positions, many employers prefer Caucasians over other ethnicities (this may be one of the reasons they ask for a picture on your application). Darker skinned people do experience more problems, including being barred from saunas and bars.
Most visitors to South Korea are extremely unlikely to encounter any problems at all. If you do experience racial abuse then you can call on the police to help, although realistically if no other offence has been committed then they will at most just try and reason with the abuser.
People from North Korea also experience discrimination in society, partly out of suspicion (North Korea has sent assassins and spies disguised as refugees) and partly out of the difficulty to integrate themselves into a vastly different society. Ethnic Koreans from China are also often regarded poorly due to being associated with low economic status and crime. People from South East Asia are also discriminated against since most immigrant workers in low paid work come from that region.
With one of the highest rates of traffic deaths, South Korean motorists will speed through pedestrian crossings, jump red lights and come within a hair-width distance to pedestrians and other cars alike. Even when the light turns red, drivers will not stop. So, beware. Motorcyclists are particularly reckless weaving in and out on crowded sidewalks. It is up to you to avoid them.
There is a lot of discussion about the reason for this, although it basically comes down to Koreans regarding traffic laws as guidelines that are nice ideas rather than rules to be obeyed.
Pedestrian crosswalks stay green for a very short period of time. When the walk signal is flashing and you are still at the curb, do not cross. Instead, you should wait and be ready for the light to turn green. The moment it turns green, wait for about 3 to 5 seconds and see if other pedestrians start to cross, and if all the traffic has indeed stopped, then walk briskly to cross safely. It is safer to take underground passageways at busy intersections. Also note that most mopeds prefer to weave through pedestrians rather than wait with the rest of the traffic.
South Korea also follows the American practice of allowing cars to turn right at red lights as long as they (in theory) yield to pedestrians. In contrast, left turns on green lights are illegal unless there is a blue sign pointing left saying 비보호 or a green left arrow.
Stay in the middle lane on a three-lane street. The left lane will likely turn into a left-turn-only lane without warning (look for straight arrows painted on the road with X in them!) and the right lane is often blocked by illegally parked cars.
There are plenty of zebra (black and white pedestrian) crossings in Korea, and they are essentially ignored by all drivers. As a foreigner you can use them by stepping onto the crossing and directly staring down any approaching cars and they will usually yield. It is important for you to stay alert while crossing the roads. Taxis, buses, freight trucks, and delivery scooters are more likely to ignore traffic rules, since many of them are pressured to ignore rules by harsh timetables or their customers.
Illegal taxis are a problem and run even from the airport. Each Korean city has a different taxi scheme with a specific car color, so check out your destination city's taxi scheme before you arrive. At the airport, ignore anyone asking if you want a taxi at arrivals and head out to the official taxi rank.
In the heart of the political center of Seoul, near Gwanghamun and City Hall, you may witness political activists of one sort or another in the city center and demonstrations can grow to tens of thousands. You'll have to use discretion as violence during political demonstrations can happen, often with water cannons and tear gas, and also large crowds may pose safety issues. Fighting is always between the demonstrators and police, and foreigners are not targeted.
Ignorance of the law here is no excuse for breaking it and can even be seen as a reason for harsher punishment. They include heavy fines, lengthy jail sentences and immediate deportation.
- Penalties concerning drug offenses may seem particularly harsh to westerners.
- Submitting fraudulent documentation for obtaining visas
- Giving somebody an English lesson without possessing the correct visa
- Causing injury during a fight, even if you were not the one who instigated it
South Korea has a draconian National Security Act (국가보안법) with regards to North Korea that restricts any unauthorized contact with that country or its citizens. Although it rarely applies to foreign visitors you should still be careful since being associated with any "anti-State group" (반국가단체) is a criminal offense. With this in mind, you should under no circumstances display any symbols that represent North Korea or be seen to praise (찬양) North Korean figures, in particular Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un, in public, websites or social media. Doing this as a joke is not in anyway an excuse, and criminal convictions can incur a penalty of up to seven years in prison.
Websites in North Korea or from North Korean-affiliated organizations are blocked from South Korea. In any case you should not attempt to access them since it could be regarded as a "communication" (통신) with an anti-State group.
Gambling is illegal for South Korean citizens, although a limited number of casinos are available for foreigners only in Seoul, Busan and Jeju island. You will need to bring your passport to enter these establishments.
The Asian giant hornet (called 장수말벌 or the "commander bee") it is about 2 in (5 cm) long and can sting repeatedly and be extremely painfull. A hornet defending its nest or feeding spot will make a clicking sound to warn away intruders; if you encounter one, retreat. If you are stung, receive prompt medical attention, as prolonged exposure to the venom could cause permanent damage or even death. They are usually seen around summer time.
There are very few other animals that can be dangerous in Korea. The Siberian Tiger is sadly no longer found on the Korean Peninsula. Large wild boars can sometimes be found in forested areas and can be very dangerous if they attack. If you see a boar with piglets then keep well away since the mother will not hesitate to protect them.
Large sharks including the Great White and Hammerhead are being sighted more frequently off the coast of South Korea. To date there has never been a recorded attack on swimmers although a few abalone divers have been killed in the past 20 years. The most popular beaches are closely monitored, and this is unlikely to be a real risk to you.
South Korea is considerably less prone to natural disasters than its neighbors. Earthquakes are rare occurrences, though minor ones occasionally occur in the southwest of the country. Tsunamis are a recognized hazard in coastal areas, although Japan's strategic position prevents most Tsunamis from ever reaching Korea. While typhoons do not occur as often as in Japan, Taiwan or the Philippines, they are nevertheless an almost yearly occurrence, and are occasionally known to be deadly and cause major property damage.
An urban legend that is very prevalent in (and particular to) South Korea is the ever present danger of fan death. The commonly held belief is that it is dangerous to sleep with a fan left turned on, with interesting theories about an air vortex being formed that can suck the air out of you. It may surprise the visitor a great deal about how seriously this is taken, with simple fans having complicated safety settings. In fact the explanation is just hyperthermia, which occurs when a dehydrated person sleeps in a hot room with no ventilation and with the fan turned on (alcohol will also increase the level of dehydration). When a person sleeps under these conditions they will sweat and the fan will continually blow the sweat away, causing the body to sweat more to remove heat. Eventually the body will dehydrate and no longer be able to sweat, resulting in increased body temperature (hyperthermia) which can potentially result in death.
Conflict with North Korea
An understandable concern about traveling to South Korea is the possibility of war. However, while war has remained a distinct possibility ever since the end of the Korean war over 60 years ago, the North Koreans appear to have become very skilled at sabre-rattling and limited provocations that are never allowed to escalate into out-and-out warfare. This is not to say that miscalculations could not spiral out of control, but simply that the odd missile launch or loudly publicized border closure does not mean war is nigh.
If a full scale war did break out between the North and South then it would almost certainly result in many casualties, military and civilian alike. If this were to happen when you are visiting Seoul then it would definitely be life-threatening. In recent times there was a great deal of brinksmanship following the appointment of Kim Jong Un as North Korea's leader, and open conflict seemed to become more likely. However, no big conflagration has broken out, and it is safe to say that the possibility of all-out war is very low, though it would be reasonable to weigh the risks when planning to visit South Korea.
There isn't really much you can do to mitigate the risk of military action. Find out the contact details of your embassy, and be aware of the current situation when traveling. Most embassies will have an evacuation strategy for their nationals in the case of war. Also be aware that Seoul's Incheon International Airport is relatively close to the North Korean border, so therefore it may not be advisable to run there looking for a flight out.
- Police: 112 from a phone and region code-112 from a cellular phone
- Fire and ambulance services: 119 and region code-119 from a cellular.
Emergency-service English interpreters are available 24 hours a day.
South Korean healthcare is known for its excellence in both research and clinical medicine, and most towns will be able to offer a high quality of healthcare. The sheer number of hospitals and specialized clinics in the country will also offer you a greater amount of choice. South Korea also promotes 'Health Tourism' where quality operations can be had for a fraction of the price of many other developed countries.
- Most South Korean doctors can communicate well in English, being the most highly educated in the country. Indeed many have achieved their medical qualifications in the United States. However, you may find them a little difficult to understand due to their Korean accent, so do ask them to slow down and go through things with you clearly. On the other hand, nurses will very rarely speak much, if any, English.
- Health care in South Korea is usually of high quality and low cost. It is subsidized by the government and is relatively cheap compared to most western countries. Expatriate workers who have the required medical insurance card will experience further discounts. Many foreigners come to South Korea to undergo medical operations much cheaper and with higher quality than in their home country.
- Traditional Chinese Medicine (along with Traditional Korean Medicine) is highly regarded in South Korea and involves many traditional methods including acupuncture, heating and herbal medicine. Traditional Chinese Medicine has deep roots and practitioners must undergo strict government certification in order to practice. Typically Koreans use oriental medicine for chronic ailments such as back pain and western medicine for sudden injuries. Due to the holistic nature of oriental medicine (i.e. treating the whole body rather than a specific ailment) it is very hard to measure its effectiveness, however it is a widely trusted part of the Korean medical system. You should bear in mind that Western medicine does not generally recognize the effectiveness of the procedures in Oriental medicine.
- Pharmacies are available everywhere, and are indicated by one very large word 약(pronounced 'yak' in English) As hospitals in South Korea are not allowed to dispense take-home prescriptions there will almost always be a separate pharmacy available there. Prescriptions are dispensed in small paper packages.
- Although there are no official vaccinationsthat are required or recommended for visitors, Hepatitis A is known throughout the country and attacks the liver after ingesting contaminated food and water. Once infected then time is the only cure. The Center for Disease Control designates the prevalence of infection in South Korea to be intermediate.
- Drinking Water. Tap water in South Korea is perfectly safe to drink, although you may want to follow the local habits of boiling and filtering if only to get rid of the chlorine smell. Koreans are especially fond of drinking mountain spring water when hiking through mountains or at monasteries, and you should be aware that this water is completely untreated. Some places in Korea have communal wells set up that supply fresh water, and in theory the local government will test from time to time in order to certify the safety.