Is South Korea Safe? What You Need To Know

Is South Korea safe during the coronavirus outbreak? Should you be worried about tensions between the North and South? Here are our top safety tips for travelers to South Korea.

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Seoul skyline, South Korea Photo © iStock/uschools

South Korea is a safe destination, but, does that mean travelers have nothing to worry about? We take a look at crime in South Korea.

Aside from the current outbreak of COVID-19, here are a few other tips on staying safe while traveling in South Korea.

Travel alert: Spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) – March 2020

Several government travel advisories, such as USA and Australia, have raised their level of advice to "Reconsider your need to travel" for South Korea due to a heightened risk of sustained local transmission of coronavirus (COVID-19). 

Wondering how your travel insurance might be affected by the COVID-19 outbreak? Find answers to some of our common questions about COVID-19.

Travel health tips for South Korea

During the outbreak of COVID-19, it is important all travelers follow advice from the WHO: Wash your hands consistently, maintain at least 3ft (1m) distance between yourself and anyone who is coughing or sneezing, and if you have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, seek medical care early (call before visiting your doctor).

See your travel doctor prior to visiting South Korea, and make sure you have all the recommended booster shots and vaccinations before you go. Other diseases such as measles mumps and rubella (MMR), diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis, varicella (chickenpox), polio, and your yearly flu shot should be up to date.

Is Seoul safe?

Each city in South Korea suffers from the same criminal activity as any other city around the world. From petty thieves and con artists to drunken brawlers, danger could be a threat to anyone – it's about knowing the areas to avoid and tactics to stay safe.

Just watch out for pickpockets in crowded areas of Seoul, question any extra friendly people (who are probably trying to scam you), and watch out when you're crossing busy roads.

If there is a large demonstration or protest (which are common in Seoul), walk the other way and avoid these crowds, which may turn violent.

How to avoid crime in South Korea

  • Keep your money and valuables out of sight and out of reach
  • Be cautious if you go out by yourself late at night, especially if you're a woman traveling alone
  • Be wary of anyone who approaches you out of nowhere 
  • Don't insult anyones family, friends, culture, ethnicity or religion (obvious, we know)
  • Don't leave valuables in your hotel room that you don't want stolen
  • Only take taxis that are marked like taxis, and if you're confused, have your hotel/hostel call a legitimate service for you before you leave your room
  • Learn how to say, "Please," "Thank you," "Hello," and "Good bye" in Korean, and use them when appropriate.

Be aware of where you're going, and try to appear simultaneously confident as you explore the urban landscapes of Seoul, Daejeon, Busan, Jeonju, and other major cities.

South Korea says no to contraband items

This should be obvious, but when you travel outside your home country, please don't bring any type of contraband items with you.

South Korea take the matter very seriously: travelers will be charged a hefty fine, and face long jail sentences for bringing unauthorised goods into the country. This includes narcotics, some prescription drugs, health supplements, firearms, ammunition and explosives, as well as radio equipment, and gold.

Marijuana is also taboo in South Korea. Possession and consumption comes with a large fine possibly jail time as well, so think again if you are planning to have a cheeky smoke.

Be careful what books and magazines you bring into the country, as anti-obscenity laws are very strict.

Know that if you commit a serious enough crime, you may be liable for the death penalty – even though you're not a citizen. Executions are still a matter of debate in South Korea, but people have called for executions when it comes to violent crime.

Racism in South Korea

Given South Korea's very strong sense of national, ethnic, and racial pride, don't be surprised if some of the legal adjudications seem un-fairly biased – some might suggest there's an undercurrent of racism.

If a Korean man accosts you on the street, think twice before hitting back. Unfortunately, the law will side with the Korean nearly every time. This could be the case in serious crimes like rape, though if you are the victim of such a crime, you should consult with your nation's embassy to see what can be done about legal recourse.

Tensions between North and South Korea

In South Korea (where reporting North Korean rhetoric is banned) life goes on as usual despite the North and South techincally being at war. 

With regard to tensions between North and South Korea, most government travel advisories indicate there is little to worry about, and travelers should take precautions as they normally would when traveling around the country.

North Korea and South Korea officially are still at war. No surrender or peace pact was ever signed. Consequently, the media likes to report about the tension on the peninsula regularly. Things were especially tense in 2017 and early 2018 with sabrer-rattling (or missile rattling) from North Korea, and the US President making undiplomatic comments via Twitter. Despite this, 15 million people visited South Korea in 2018, and it is still considered one of the safest destinations in the world.

The warning for visitors usually occurs a day after a warning from North Korea, advising foreign governments to evacuate their embassies because their safety couldn't be guaranteed in the event of hostilities.

There's been one exception to the diplomatic equivalent of telling North Korea to "talk to the hand", with Japan deploying Patriot anti-missile batteries around Tokyo in February 2016. But this may be a propaganda move. The missiles have been placed in very visible locations in the center of the city when they would be just as effective placed in military installations elsewhere.

How real is the threat of nuclear war from North Korea?

Aside from the continual tit for tat between North Korea and the US and the occasional weapons test, Kim Jong Un hasn't really followed through on any threats.

With one exception there has been no military activity of significance. No massing of troops on the border or activation of hardware. The one exception is the shifting of a missile unit to the east coast for another ballistic missile "test" - another reason why Japan has deployed Patriot missiles. Tensions also tend to heighten when there are joint US-South Korea exercises.

Despite those crazy neighbor style threats from the north, South Koreans tend to go about their lives. 

There was a show of diplomacy by both Korean nations when athletes competed together at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games. Athletes also marched together during the opening ceremony under a unified peninsula flag. The last time this happened was in 2002 at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.

Dignitaries including Kim Jong Un's sister made the trip south, the first time anyone from the Kim dynasty has visited its southern neighbor. And with opportunities for future talks between the two nations, it raises some hope for more peaceful times on the Korean Peninsula and potential unification.

So, just how safe is South Korea?

South Korea has one of the lowest crime rates in the modern world, so a lot of this article is, in truth, hyperbolic. In other words, you shouldn't decide not to go to South Korea just because you're concerned about crime that could very well happen anywhere else in the world – perhaps even at home.

There's so much to see, from historic temples to politically intense spots (such as the DMZ with North Korea) to ultra-modern cities and peaceful honeymoon resorts. South Koreans are extremely friendly, and this friendliness comes from their pride in their heritage.

If you're trying to find the best time of year to travel to South Korea, avoid typhoon season, which runs from June to November. If you have a trip booked for typhoon season, stay up to date ahead of your flight to make sure there are no cancellations due to severe weather.

South Korea is located in a seismically active zone, and although earthquakes aren't as common here as they are in Japan or China, it's important to know what to do if an earthquake does occur.

Keep an eye on developments and travel advisories on coronavirus and tensions between the North and South. But make sure you know the difference between rhetoric, propaganda and real risk from North Korea.

As you would elsewhere, respect and celebrate their pride, get to know their story, and go out of your way to learn a bit of the local language. The chances of you running into any sort of criminal activity are slim to none. For now, avoid traveling to South Korea until the coronavirus outbreak has been contained, and as always, check your government's travel advisory for the latest information.

Did you have any uncomfortable moments in South Korea, or was your trip completely safe? Tell us in the comments below!

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13 Comments

  • Claire Algarme said

    I took the risk and went to Seoul last week on the brink of the news of North Korea closing its industrial zone. Yes, life goes on as usual in Seoul. Now, I'm back home in Manila. Fear does not hold us back. Otherwise, we won't be going galavanting around the world.

    Reply

  • Arum Lee said

    South Korea isn't dangerous at all. It's only a political tug of war.
    You will enjoy the visiting and will absolutely safe!

    Reply

  • Fiona Neb said

    I worked with the loveliest and safest people on earth and a very christian country!!!! Yes they ignore the northern threats but you see, the two countries share a province cut by the DMZ and speak the same language and South wants unification of both DROK with its ROK. Night clubs in Seoul are safe and places of energy and relaxation with locals highly interested in the foreigners presence.
    The North only wants American Bases in South Korea to leave in actual fact. Vibrant city and people with all night sauna places where teens meet and socialize overnight in a public place which is cheap accommodation and entertainment for them. Cheap stay for a foreigner with baths and spas....which are separate sex so boys can't get in with the girls naked but can lounge together afterwards in light shorts and Tshirt.Zimzilban!
    Great idea.!!

    Reply

  • elwyn foster said

    I am leaving Australia on the 3 rd May is it safe to travel ..

    Reply

  • Dave said

    Here now with wife and 2 young kids. Was contemplating last week to cancel (even notified the hotels to see what my options were) but just bought an additional insurance then went ahead. Lazing in Grand Children's Park now with my kid taking an afternoon nap amongst some oldies singing lullabies whilst wife is out shopping with infant daughter. At least we'd all go together if anything happens and amongst some great company!

    Reply

  • Lou said

    I could only find this old article about safety in Seoul. I'll be flying to Seoul upcoming Monday for my studies. I'm planning to study 5 months in Seoul (august till january). Still same hassle now in 2017 as in 2013, or should I be worried by now? Hope someone can help me out!

    Reply

  • Letícia Rollemberg said

    I'm on a similar situation as Lou, i just got the opportunity to study in a south korean university for 6 months as an exchange student, but it starts on the January of 2018. My parents are convinced it is 100% not safe to go, but i know this is a one life-time opportunity and i've been trying my best to learn the language on my own already...Can anyone give recent feedback?

    Reply

  • Jay said

    Like South Korea is one of the safest country on earth! It is true that there is no crime at all, but a lot of S. Koreans just go around at late night even 2AM or whenever and they just get some milk or snacks at convenience stores! Yeah, it is agreeable that N. Korea makes provocations sometimes, but Korean military is not weak as all Koreans serve military service for two years and we, America, do have strong alliance with S. Korea. Enjoy trips in S. Korea!

    Reply

  • Nicole said

    A lot of people are asking updates so here’s the deal. Despite North Korea and South Korea being at a stalemate, South Korea is one of the most developed and fast paced countries in the world, especially Seoul. Traveling there, realistically has no danger. No one who lives in South Korea are constantly worried about North Korea, they’ve become desentisied to the old scare tactics (in a good way, since there’s hardly any if ever, follow through). Seoul is a lovely, modern, and beautiful city and there’s so much to do and explore from both the new and the old. There’s buzzing nightlife, incredibly accessible public transportation, both cheap/traditional street food and extravagant restaurants, not to mention the historical palaces and mountains you can visit/hike. Don’t let what you hear stop you from visiting South Korea! There’s a huge foreigner population as well so you won’t feel left out if you go to a bar and mingle with some English speakers (the foreigner town is called itaewon).

    Reply

  • Susan Colllins said

    S. Korea is very clean and very safe with friendly people.
    One of my favorite places to visit.

    Reply

  • K8 Russell said

    What about the air quality? Is this a problem for visitors in March 2019?

    Reply

  • olive kim said

    i am looking to visit south korea soon with my husband

    Reply

  • Keith Kanak said

    What does it cost to check in to a hotel, or even a hostel?

    Reply

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