Is it Safe to Travel to South Korea Right Now? Even for a Quick Visit ... a Look at Safety and Whether it is Dangerous
The initial reaction!
I'm not sure why, but when you tell someone that you are heading to South Korea, they either act shocked, or are very concerned about your safety. When I first told my family that I was going to Korea, they seemed quite concerned. There is a lot of confusion about the country and it is unfortunately often connected with North Korea, yet is nothing like it's sibling.
South Korea likes to be known as Dynamic, as they have made incredible developments and changes from the past. In the last 20 years or so, Korea has evolved from being one of the poorest countries in the world, to having a booming economy, high end technology, amazing infrastructure (Trains, roads, buses, hospitals, police etc) and some of the most honest people I have ever met.
Yet, people always wonder about whether it is safe to travel to South Korea and after being here a year, I have to answer with a BIG YES. Why, well because their seems to be almost no crime here. It is quite amazing compared to the UK. In the UK, if you go out on the town, you expect to see fights braking out at some point. However, in a year here, I have only seen a single 'verbal argument' (certainly nothing to run to the airport over). Everybody has ID cards, fingerprints in a database and CCTV covers the country. Hence, to be a criminal, you have to be pretty brave and incredibly smart to get away with it more than once, as a single print or camera image will lead police to your door. Not only that, it is impossible to get a phone, Internet, bank account or anything else without an up-to-date ID card.
Although I'm sure that this level of security has played a part, all the people I have met here are incredible sincere and generous. They don't seem to be interested in handouts, scamming people, or any underhand activity. They seem to have a huge amount of pride in being Korean, and as a Korean, they are brought up to really think about how their actions could affect others and the future. Similar to the idea of stepping on a butterfly if you went back in time, Koreans take great care about their actions, trying to influence the best future outcome possible.
Travel tips South Korea
One of the best travel tips I can give is for when you arrive. Go to the information desk and ask for the 'Tourist Information' phone number. Korea actually has a multilingual helpline setup especially to help tourists. Whether you need help with train times, directions for the taxi driver, or tips on where to visit, these guys are amazingly helpful.
Although you can call from any landlines, I recommend that you also consider a rental mobile. These are located in the main hall in the airport, after you clear all the checks. A few companies rent out the mobiles for quite low fees, which means that you can be connected and get help at anytime.
Another point to consider is that many Koreans may know English, but can be shy to speak. Give them time to respond and a smile for encouragement. It will also help if you can speak a little slower (OK, if you are a jabber mouth like me, you may have to bring it down to 30% of normal). However, take the time to get to know a Korean and they will be an amazing friend, keen to show your their way of life, and most likely to introduce you to a Korean style night of drinking.
If you do go drinking with a Korean, be prepared! I thought I could handle my booze, but my god these guys love to party. They are all happy drunks (well, all I have seen), but drinking past the point of being sick or losing consciousness is actually quite common here on a night out (not my style, but each to their own). Have fun and drink, but do not try to take them on in a competition ... they will win! lol
Drinking here is a big social event, so you may also want to brush up on some customs. Things like turning your head to your shoulder and drinking when in the presence of someone older is something they will greatly appreciate you doing. If someone older offers you a drink, you MUST accept it. However, you can just bring it to your lips in the aforementioned style and put it down (you do not have to down it or even drink it). Actually, it would be best on reading a few life customs too. A simple bow when you meet a Korean can really help you to look good as a foreigner, as it shows you have not only taken the time to learn a little of their culture, but also that you are willing to adapt to their culture while in their country.
Final point, anyone who doesn't like meat should learn a few Korean phrases. As in Korea, almost everyone loves meat and eats incredible quantities. South Korea food is normally meat based and served up in many delicious styles. Traveling Korea as a veggie can be challenging, but not impossible.
Visiting South Korea
So, if you are considering a trip here, I highly recommend it. It is a fun and very affordable country to travel. Accommodation is reasonable ($30+ per night, normally under $100) and public transport is not only cheap, but also highly efficient!
If you are not a lover of heat, check out the winter vacation options. South Korea, particularly the Gangwon-do area, has an incredible amount of mountains, many of which are perfect for skiing. Also, there are some extremely reputable ski resorts, which again are very affordable. This means that you can explore the scenery and try your hand at a bit of skiing or snowboarding.
ADDITIONAL URGENT UPDATE - USA Concerned
** Update **
While generally South Korea is very safe, with recent threats from North Korea, things are a little less certain. Please check the news with your embassy, as the previous peace may be broken, unless things are resolved quickly. Depending on these actions, please look at the big picture and talk with embassies/travel agents before booking.
South Korea has just been hit with a massive cyber attack on banking and media networks. These attacks took down these networks yesterday (20/03/2013). The attack was from a powerful virus called "DarkSeoul". It is not the most advanced seen, but is a serious concern as it renders computer system unusable and avoids detection by many antivirus systems.
There is a lot of speculation that this attack was from North Korea and could be targeted at the US. At the very least, it is reported that the US is concerned, as this virus actually wiped out the networks and apparently the US doesn't have contingency plans in place for this scale of attack. If this is true, then it is certain quite concerning!
At this time, banks are reporting both hacking attacks and this virus. Some banks lost functionality in infected branches and ATMs, as the attack erased all files ... wiping the data completely. The hacking was also a concern, but so far did not succeed.
It is not sure if this is a North Korean attack on South Korea, or if this originated else where. However, the fact that banking systems and media are vulnerable to this attack is very concerning in my mind.
Those interested may find this site interesting:
##### Update 27/03/2013 ####
North Korea Threatens US Military Bases
North Korea has made a threat to attack all US military bases. This statement/threat was reportedly made on Tuesday and said that they would attack all bases around the globe, including those in South Korea. However, the US seems confident that they can fend off any attempted attacks on their bases and successfully protect their allies. Living in the area, I can confirm that the US and South Korea have really stepped up military presence, with jets frequently flying around ... prepared for any move it seems. I really hope this is the case!
For more details, please read:
@@@@ UPDATE 04/10/2013 @@@@
OK, so as far as the people go, it is business as usual here on the ground. Everyone seems pretty unconcerned by the rhetoric of North Korea, apparently as this is something that has been happening regularly for about 50 years. They do not seem to think that the North will attack.
However, North Korea has requested that foreigners vacate the South for their own safety. Yet, having checked the UK advice for travelers, the UK does not perceive that there is any increased risk.
It is reported that if something is going to happen, that it is likely to be on the 10th or 15th. This is the leaders birthday and the anniversary of the North Korean army's formation. That said, it is suspected that the leader is trying to prove his strength rather than start an actual war. He is reportedly trying to show his people that he is strong. This is currently heightened by the leader currently being surrounded by hundreds of armored vehicles (this is reported from a friend interested in politics), as he is apparently concerned for his life, possibly due to an uncle that is unhappy with his leadership skills. Hence, it is suspected that the show of strength may be a small attack on an outpost or ship, not enough to cause a full war, but enough to impress the people.
That said, the worst case scenario I recently saw on the news was an outright attack on Seoul and major cities. It is reported that they only have low power nuclear devices, but that these could cause damage to say an entire district of Seoul. Initially it would take a few days for the combined forces of South Korea, the USA and Japan to control the skies. Then up to about a week to completely control North Korea and damage the infrastructure like communications, bases, bridges etc.
Personally I don't think an outright war will happen, at least I really hope not. But, in the meantime I will be avoiding the cities for the time being, at least until after the 15th.
@@@@ UPDATE 20/02/2014 @@@@
It has been a while now and nothing serious occurred. Hopefully this will be the end of it, but if something serious happens, I will return to updating on the situation.
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