Crime in South Korea: Should Travelers Be Cautious?

South Korea is an extremely safe place for anyone to visit. But, does that mean travelers have absolutely nothing to worry about? We take a look at crime in South Korea.

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South Korea is an extremely urbanized country, with many different major metropolitan centres around the small peninsular tip.

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.

Be cautious when you're close to one of the US military bases – they're a sore point among many South Koreans, so they can occasionally attract trouble.

Avoiding 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 female.
  • 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.

South Korea is Generally Safe

It's important to note that 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 (the DMZ with North Korea, for instance) to ultra-modern cities and peaceful honeymoon resorts. South Koreans are extremely friendly, and this friendliness comes from their pride in their heritage.

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.

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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17 Comments

  • Sophia said

    Are you kidding me? So if one gets raped you're just supposed to submit and take it because "you're in South Korea and they will side with the Korean"? "Don't even think about hitting back"?

    Well quite frankly, when I'm accosted I will defend myself, I don't care what country I'm in. Way to help the ongoing issue of women being scared of calling attention to sexual harassment.

  • Rajnandini said

    I mean literally I am extremely interested in South Korea ... I admire and support almost every activity .... but when it comes on sexual harassment ... I just can't support the suggestion of doing nothing and bear what they do ... Shouldn't they also think of giving justice to the victim .... I heard that S.Korea believe in Harmony the most ... So if a woman is crying and sobbing to the death to get justice ... They must take her side ... And I would appreciate if any victim after defending herself leave that place immediately without leaving any evidence behind and urgently discuss the case with her family so that they can think out of a way to get her legal support ...

  • Kenneth Thomas said

    Hmm. So this basically says, South Korea is pretty safe, except when it isn't, in which case, if you defend yourself from robbery, assault or rape, the local authorities are going to side with the local guy despite them being a drunk prejudiced scoundrel; and you're left to hope for Embassy support when the US really, really needs to keep tensions down and its military bases in place.
    Not exactly comforting!

  • NOMA NOMA said

    The way it has been written sounds quite negative Hmm. You might think your palace is much safer compared to Korea while not mentioning that you are living in a suburb and afraid to even go out for walk at night inner city where there is always looting during riots and frequent gun related incidents. So funny to notice that you have even tried to evaluate safety level here with your so-called benchmark established in you country. You would say the same opinion when you have to live on top of mountains or near to escape violence taking place much nearer your previous house in the future.

  • Taewoo said

    As I am Korean, I am pleased to see some positive aspects of South Korea. However, I totally disagree with racism. I would like to argue where this source comes from. If that situation occurs in South Korea, the law will farily consider. In addition, I cannot deny that South Koreans will look at foreigners on the street even though Koreans don't knos them. That's because there are not many foriengers in South Korea so that we, Koreans, are just curious or interested in foriengers in a good way. In comparison to the past, there have been more people from different countries, but we still need to get used to it.

    In recent years, South Korea has been popular. As you can search about the Korean education system, over 98% of Koreans are educated, which means that we know which situation is right or bad. When we see or hear that situation mentioned by you, we will hit or report that Korean to the police.

  • mike said

    When I went to South Korea, I met a robbery and prostitudes who pretended karaoke staff.
    I think that prostitusion is preveiled there.

  • Chanwu said

    lol the part about the law always siding with locals isn't true
    source please?

  • David said

    Where in Korea can't you walk freely at night? Whoever wrote this piece has probably never set foot in Korea and just wrote out of their own figment of imagination. Absolutely hogwash!! It's like violent crime is literally non existent here in Korean. I am a foreign scientist living in Seoul

  • Sloy said

    So let me think......hmmmmm South Korea is safe but on the grounds of rape to foreigners they will side with the Koreans.

    So If a foreigner goes to South Korea they may be preyed upon by sex starved Koreans knowing that they will get away with it.
    This is far from the truth as Koreans have a fair a just Law System.

    Racism exist all over the world. South Korea is no exception. However there is little racism in South Korea compared to other countries. You will be looked upon as a foreigner simply because there are not much foreigners in South Korea.

    I am a huge example as a Black Guy in South Korea. I was looked at but treated with kindness and respect by the Koreans ALL THE TIME.
    South Korea is a beautiful and lovely country that has its small share of minute problems like any other beautiful country.


  • Alice said

    Where should I begin... Korea is such a beautiful country and there are so many reasons to love it. It's modern and advanced in technology. Seoul is a bustling city with tons of skyscrapers and neon signs yet Koreans do their best to sustain their traditions and culture. The streets are clean, people are polite and friendly and EDUCATED AND CIVILIZED. You ask a person for directions and we had a few people that actually personally took us to our destination. One of our cab drivers walked us to the door of the childrens museum and even gave us his umbrella bevause it was raining and our baby was with us. So many people offered us seatson subways and gave our baby candies everywhere we went. Their food is delicious, cheap and healthy. Their tap water is drinkable and they are so environmentally aware. They care so much about sanitation and their health standards are probably higher than in North America. I am Canadian and I was blown away at the fact that kids play areas (we went to several during our trip) get sanitized and cleaned EVERY HOUR and every single person we saw handling food were wearing gloves. This does not happen in Canada.
    No where in the world were we treated with as much warmth and couteousness as we did in Korea during our travels.
    Korean people are not racists. They even have TV shows with foreigners starring in them and there are many foreigners that are now celebrities in Korea. I am a big fan of the show "Welcome. First time in Korea?" It's such a funny show!
    We felt very safe in Korea even in wee hours.
    We are in Phuket right now and we hate it here. We miss Korea and wish we were back there again. We hope to visit again very soon!

  • jameswoods said

    I have been an exchange student for two years in Korea.
    And I used to drink until 2 AM, but I have never been a victim of crime for two years. There is no such country on earth. Korea is a very safe country.

  • peterchance said

    Koreans have a strong sense of self - esteem. although They starve, they do not steal other people's goods. This is a good personality. But this is an inflexible personality. So they're stuffy people.

  • Wendell Clarke said

    So I lived in 서울 (Seoul) for a year and 대전 (Daejeon) for 3 years and I think I would add the following for clarification sake:

    1. I’m a Black man and there IS Racism in South Korea. It wasn’t widespread or rampant but my boss explained it like this. “When we see a Black person, we aren’t going to assume you’re American. White people are associated with English therefore they’ll be hired for English teaching jobs first because a lot of schools are trying to appease the market”. Thus first time Black People especially in smaller towns will be assumed to be Africans. With more globalization, that will change.

    2. Taxi drivers, particularly older Korean men may wonder if blonde passengers traveling to certain areas at night are Russian prostitutes. Some have asked my fellow teaching staff that (much to their dismay), but they never accosted them. This again seems based on what they were exposed to. I generally find it best to keep a cool head and calmly reply that you are not, but a 선생님 (sonsengnim which means teacher) or 관광객 (gwangwanggeh which means tourist).

    3. On the topic of types of trouble, it was more likely to run into a drunken rowdy person that was either fascinated with me at the 찜질방 (jjimjilbang or bath house) or the club districts. Unfortunately, I am going to agree that if a physical altercation does occur, the law and people generally do side with the locals faster than you especially if you can’t speak the language.

    4. Secure your belongs. I have forgotten to lock my apartment on multiple occasions and came home to find everything intact, lost my wallet and had it returned to me intact via the police station but I did lose my Sony camera on the High-Speed train never to be seen again, so be cognizant that not everyone is always going to honest.

    5. At some point, you’re going to stand in line and an elderly person is going to cut in front of you and it’ll enrage you. My advice? Let it go. Age is an important part of the culture and accosting them about it will win you no cool points. Similarly, if you’re been waiting for a taxi for a while and they drive past you and pick up the local and speed away into the freezing night, realize it’s more likely because the driver doesn’t speak English well than having a problem with you. Be patient.

    6. A friend of mine was deported for having marijuana mailed to him. Don’t mess with their drug laws because American jails are superior and getting locked up in a foreign country is frightening and a hassle. Also, you should probable know that illicit material (read: pornography) is blocked via their internet providers. But you didn’t come to the country for that anyway.

    7. Sometimes you want to go to a nightclub and you’re told “no foreigners” at the door. You get indignant and angry and want to take action. Realize that this is because drunken American soldiers have been rowdy in the past and been belligerent or caused property damage and it’s left a bad taste in the mouth of some South Koreans. Move on to the next club and let it go.

    8. During my time, I really didn’t run into many (if any) swindlers and cheats. Call me fortunate. If you’re unsure of the price of something, shop around a bit before settling. South Koreans are big on proper representation of their culture.

    9. You might see the drunken Korean female being accosted a male and want to be the Lnight in shinning armor. The best way to intervene is to get someone else who speaks the language to help out because on more than one occasion I have seen that the best intentions have been misinterpreted and people end up thinking that you’re a foreign sex-crazed deviant trying to prey upon an inebriated damsel. Bring attention to the situation by pointing and shouting 도와주세요! (dowa joo seh yo! Which means help me!)

    10. I find the country very safe filled with the only people on Earth who would walk up to you and ask if you are lost or needed help. Do use common sense and like the article says, watch it around US military bases. Some people, especially older people are still sour that American involvement has caused them to be estranged from family to the North. No matter that you may think, family is family. Humility and patience goes a long way.

    11. Rush hour can get a little crazy and some people get to fighting or throwing elbows for a subway seat. Let them have it and don’t speak loudly and obnoxiously on the train. Chances are, an 아줌마 (Ajumma which means old lady) will voice her disapproval, regardless of if you see younger Koreans doing the same. You are the guest in their country. Remember that.

    12. All in all, I loved living in Korea and the only thing that really shocked me was the one time someone said “Nigger go home” in the most broken English ever. I laughed more than I got offended. I made sure to learn how receive gifts (with two hands), bowed to people and used correct honorifics where possible. I will say that should you decide to work there, know that contracts can be more of a guiding document than the iron-clad law that we live and die by in the west so be prepared for that. Many middle aged and older Koreans are happy to know that people actually WANT to know about their culture and will be happy to show you around or tell you more. Try to avoid getting stupid drunk in bars or clubs and if you find people following you around, it’s more out of curiosity than a desire to do you harm. Don’t do stupid things like some foreigners do like take their cellphones to the nude sections of the bathhouse to videorecord the place (or people), express outright disgust at foods you don’t like or make them feel grossly uncomfortable by being rude to elders, no matter how you communicate back home.

    I encourage everyone to visit and get off the beaten path. A wonderful world awaits in the Land of the Morning Calm and most of my friends who left ended up coming back!

    안녕히 계십시오 (Annyeong-hee gyeship see-oh...which means goodbye!)

    👋🏾👋🏾👋🏾

  • Alfie Jaiyoon Kim said

    I have lived in Korea (Seoul) for 16 years, 4 years in Australia (Geelong and Canberra), 9 years in Canada (Montreal, Oakville, Longueuil, Edmonton) and travelled to many more countries around the world . I am a Korean-Canadian so I may not have experienced or felt the things that "foreign looking people" (i.e., people of different ethnic backgrounds) would have felt in Korea (e.g., racism, rip offs, subtle discrimination). However, I guarantee, that of all countries I have been to (USA, Australia, Canada, Mongolia, Italy, Cuba, Costa Rica, Mexico, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Portugal, Hong Kong, China, Thailand, Japan, The Netherlands, North Korea, Ukraine) only Japan and North Korea (lol the irony, but it is true street-crime wise) can even be compared to Korea when it comes to Korea. Apart from Japan and Korea, there is nowhere else in the world that people (females included) would feel safe even when they just pass out drunk on the street (which you might see if you visit places like Hongdae (where there are many bars and clubs) because binge drinking is a big issue in Korea) or a young kid can wander around 2, 3 AM in the morning (although, obviously you should avoid being in such situations). It is also important to note that there is almost no violent crimes (e.g., brawls, robbery) since any perpetrator will feel the full force of the law. Hell, I even saw a news that some Korean taxi drivers sometimes bait other short tempered drunk Koreans to physically assault them so they can gain a large amount of financial compensations from the perpetrator. Also, feel free to call the police anytime day or night if you need any type of help. When I was young I even walked into Pachulsos (small police outposts that have 4-5 uniformed police officers at any given time) to just get a glass of water. They will do their utmost to help you whenever you request help from them and if you ever feel mistreated by anyone including the police officers, feel free to take the matters high up either within the government or with the media/social media. Then, the individual in question will lose their job and there will be a nation wide witch-hunt against the individual via social media websites with every personal details of them exposed (not that I'm condoning a witch-hunt, however). I babbled a lot but you would be safer in Korea than at your home if you are from any of the aforementioned countries with the exception of Japan. Also, the comments from Alice and Wendell are very spot on as well.

  • Alfie Jaiyoon Kim said

    Oh I need to mention one thing about what Alice said....

    The tap water.

    The Korean government says it is safe to drink and, in fact, hand out free bottled tap water to the public and they provide statistics and test results to back that up.

    But the vast majority of Koreans choose to buy bottled water or purchase a water purifier (fancy ones). So make your own decision on that. 🤣

    It is one of those things that you will, hopefully, find fascinating in Korea just like the myth regarding "the fan death".

    One more thing, if you ever choose to settle down and live in Korea for a lengthy period of time and choose to make friends with the locals....you should be aware of the fact that you most likely will witness a suicide (or more) of a close friend/associate/acquaintance as one of the things Koreans aren't good at is keeping their mental health healthy...😥

  • Alfie Jaiyoon Kim said

    Oh I want to clarify/adjust one of the things I said. When I mention the crime rate/safety of North Korea, I am only talking about Pyongyang as situations in other parts of North Korea may vary significantly.

  • Max said

    I don't get all these negative comments. I've lived in Korea for more than 20 years now and it's one of the few countries where you can fearlessly get some air in the dead of night or leave your laptop on the cafe table while taking a leak. I'd say it also is the most female-friendly nation, perhaps even safer for females than males. You may worry about local prices and the weather, but the least you could concern yourself with is public safety.

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