After living in South Korea on and off for roughly ten years, I have experienced, first-hand, how physically safe the country can be. Safety in South Korea has never really been a concern for me personally, yet the country has changed dramatically since I first arrived and there are now some precautions that you will need to put in place when traveling here.
In this article, we combine personal experiences and objective facts to bring you a complete and up-to-date guide to safety in South Korea. It includes everything you might be worried about from the threat of North Korea and yellow dust to solo female travel safety and everything in between. There is a host of factual and personal information from a long term expat that will answer all of you questions on South Korea safety.
- Safety tips for traveling in South Korea
- General safety in South Korea
- Scams in South Korea: Places and people to avoid
- Transportation safety in South Korea
- Travel safety in South Korea
- Water & food safety in South Korea
- Accommodation safety in South Korea
- Air quality & fine dust
- The situation with North Korea
Safety tips for traveling in South Korea
Before starting on all the details of safety in South Korea, here’s a quick list of how to keep safe in South Korea when traveling.
- You will see Koreans flashing their money and valuables without a concern in the world. We suggest taking the opposite approach and keeping them out of sight, just to be cautious, as travelers may be targeted in more touristy areas. We personally have never had any issues with our valuables, but it’s always best to be cautious.
- If someone insults you with verbal or physical violence, try to distance yourself as much as possible. Foreigners have limited rights when it comes to altercations.
- Be weary of scammers who are usually over friendly and may come up to you offering “tea ceremony” services. Walk away as fast as possible. That being said, Koreans can generally be very welcoming, especially out in the country side or up on a mountain, offering candy or even food. Use your discretion.
- Don’t leave your drink unattended at a nightclub or bar and don’t get blind drunk, especially if you are a solo female traveler. You may be a target of a sex crime and should always be cautious in these environments.
- Stay away from touchy and taboo subjects like drugs (even marijuana is illegal) and Dokdo Island (this is too long to explain here, so read this article for more info).
- Remember that South Korea is a community-based, not an individualistic-based society, so it is recommended to go with the flow, listen to your elders and be respectful of those in authority positions. Unless your life depends on it of course, then follow your intuition. Otherwise, suck it up and listen to your elders.
- Learn basic Korean phrases and possibly the Korean alphabet (it’s really easy!) to get around easier.
- Have all the important numbers on your phone and a spare charger available at all times (like your embassy) in case of an emergency, 1330 Travel Hotline and the 1345 Immigration Contact Center for any questions.
- Download all the travel apps like KakoaTaxi, Tada & Seoul subway app (you will need to know Hangul for some of them, even if you don’t understand the language, i.e. addresses, names of restaurants etc.).
General safety in South Korea
In general, South Korea is a very safe country to visit. This comes from both subjective experience as an expat, subjective experience from locals, as well as objective research and statistics.
Additionally, South Korea is an international model in gun regulation, violent crimes beyond domestic abuse such as assault are very rare, and the police are omnipresent with interpretation services if they can’t speak your language. It seems to mostly be drunk and rowdy foreigners that provoke aggressive behaviour who seem to fall victim to violence.
General theft and pickpocketing is very low where the most stolen item seems to be unlocked bicycles over cellphones and laptops. I’ve seen many stories on foreign/expat Facebook groups where people have mistakenly left their wallets, phones or bags with laptops on busses or subways, only to be collected a day later at lost and found.
I have personally seen people of all ages and genders walking alone at night in the darkest of alleys with no troubles in the world, phone in one hand, wallet in the other. In fact, one of my personal favorite things to do in Korea is to go for a midnight stroll along one of the many rivers.
The most prominent safety issue in South Korea seems to be concerned with traffic. This topic will be explored in the relevant section below.
Below you will find an in depth look into all the relevant issues concerning safety in South Korea from the North Korea issue to travel safety and air quality. Along with relevant research, there will be plenty of personal stories that you may find interesting from a long term expat and his Korean wife. Hopefully this article will bring to light the actual safety concerns when traveling to South Korea and will get you ready for your adventure to the Land of the Morning Calm.
As this article focuses on safety, the majority of the article has a negative perspective of an otherwise amazing country. We are taking a worst case scenario approach pointing out at all the possible things that can happen because we want to provide you with all the research to make an informed decision; better safe than sorry.
So read the article with this in mind, and knowing that there is a lot that South Korea has to offer for visitors from its amazing Korean food, deep historical and cultural facts, amazing festivals during summer and winter and the capital of Seoul is extremely safe for a quick visit or a longer itinerary and the risk of something bad happening to you is incredibly low relative to most countries.
How safe is South Korea (objectively & subjectively)
Let’s start with the general objective statistics and analytics of safety in South Korea and then move onto the more subjective feelings of how it is to live in and travel South Korea as a foreigner.
The US Travel Advisory sees South Korea as being a very safe country to visit, citing the most threatening concerns as Public Demonstrations (although they are mostly peaceful), North Korea (where “tensions occasionally flare”), Weather-related Events (heavy rains/flooding, although I would add fine dust), Sexual Assault (especially in young women after drinking alcohol) & Crime, stating, “For most visitors, South Korea remains a very safe country. Common crimes occur more frequently in major metropolitan areas, tourist sites, and crowded markets”.
About Tourism, they go on to say: “The tourism industry is generally regulated and rules with regard to best practices and safety inspections are regularly enforced. Hazardous areas/activities are identified with appropriate signage and professional staff is typically on hand in support of organized activities. In the event of an injury, appropriate medical treatment is widely available throughout the country. Outside of a major metropolitan center, it may take more time for first responders and medical professionals to stabilize a patient and provide life-saving assistance”. See more info on the official government website.
The UK Travel Advisory states demonstrations (mostly peaceful) and road travel (watch out for motorbikes and speeding cars) as the two major safety concerns when traveling to South Korea.
They cite crime against foreigners as being rare with occasional isolated incidents. The top incidents include assaults (including sexual assaults) mostly around bars and nightlife areas. More information on the official government website.
All this information points to the objective fact that South Korea is generally a safe place to visit for tourists if you are vigilant about your belongings, avoid protests (it is illegal for non-citizens to engage in “political activities”) and remain in full possession of your mental abilities concerning alcohol.
I can subjectively concur with this. I have never been in a fight, although I have been provoked a few times by drunk Korean men (usually saying something about me being American when I am South African). Foreigners have limited sway in South Korea and can be deported even if they did not instigate an altercation. Even female victims of rape are seen as “provocateurs” in the highly chauvinistic legal system, whether the victim is a local or foreigner. Being drunk in Korea is currently a legal excuse for rape.
You may not slander someone or a business in public or call someone out for wrongdoings on a public platform, unless you want them to take legal action against you citing defamation. Naming and shaming is illegal in South Korea, even if an institution treated you unfairly and you want to call them out, you cannot even post an image online, let alone print the name of that institution.
This means that if you are turned away from institutions because of the color of your skin, sexual preference or citizenship, there is literally nothing you can do about this, so it’s always the best option to just walk away and not take the profiling to heart.
On the other hand, Koreans are ridiculously friendly, going out of their way to help others. On a visit to South Korea my cousin was shocked when a group of elderly ladies offered him and his girlfriend some snacks, fruits and drinks while hiking on a mountain. If you ask for directions, they will most likely guide you basically all the way to your destination (even convenience store workers have left the store unattended to show me directions).
Due to the communal nature embedded in Koreans, they may seem cold to outsiders. Try chatting to one of them and their entire personality will change to a welcoming individual with a broad smile, interested in where you are from and taking this opportunity to practice their English.
Scams in South Korea: Places and people to avoid
The places to stay away from for reasons of personal safety are very few. Other than traveling alone to the DMZ (the border with North Korea), you can basically travel safely to any area in the country without much fuss.
If you are sober and have your wits about you, you can venture into the university areas, back alleyways and clubs without any problems. What you do have to worry more about are some of the scammers you may come in contact with.
While most Koreans you come in contact with will be super friendly and interesting, there are a few types of people you will need to avoid who may have ulterior motives to steal from or physically hurt you.
The biggest issue that I’ve faced in South Korea includes scams involving religion, especially fringe churches. You may have heard of the Moonies, who have now become militant, the Shincheonji Church of Jesus which began the larger spread of the Coronavirus in South Korea, the Victory Altar Church or possibly the Salvation Sect who were linked to the tragic sinking of the Sewol ferry.
I’ve luckily had the senses to not be conned, but some people do fall pray. I have had Buddhist monks coming up to me near Jogyesa Temple in Seoul asking for donations in return for trinkets and it is easy for a traveler to be made to believe this is the right thing to do because it is common in other countries for Buddhist monks to ask for donations.
However, unlike Theravada Buddhists in countries like Cambodia, Korean Buddhists usually follow the Seon (Zen) order and it is not part of their duties to ask for donations on the street, especially not monetary donations.
In fact, the temples provide free food for monks and occasionally lay people and most of the major temples are actually quite wealthy due to large donations and templestay programs. If a monk asks you for a donation, especially just outside the temple grounds, avoid them and give your donation to the nearest temple rather in the form of a bag of rice.
The other major scams in Korea are for cults in the guise of Christianity or friendliness. My devout Muslim Kuwaiti friend was once invited to a free yoga class after befriending some people. She visited and was told to wear a “special uniform”.
During the yoga session, things got a bit weird when people started talking in tongues. Then they approached her after telling her that joining their religion was the only way to reach heaven and that she would have to make a monthly donation for the class.
She didn’t remember the name, but this was most likely Dahn Yoga, a yoga franchise that has been accused of being a cult, originally from a Rolling Stone expose in 2010, and who extort large sums of money from followers. Other names they go under are Brain Power Wellness or Body & Brain.
One of the biggest scams is known as the “teahouse scam” usually conducted by members of the Daesun Jinrihoe. Here you will be approached by a young friendly person or couple asking for directions, usually stating they are not from the area. Why a Korean would approach a foreigner for directions is beyond me, so it’s fishy from the start.
After some polite chit chat, they ask if you know about Korean culture and want to learn more. If you say no, they try to guilt you in with sad looks. You follow them to a teahouse (again why would they ask for directions if they want to take you somewhere), dress in Hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) and take part in a traditional tea ceremony. At the end they ask you for a donation, not a small one. If you don’t oblige things can get physical. Here’s a Korean man following these scam artists.
After researching on Facebook expat groups, I’ve recently also come across some posts that warn female travelers coming to Korea looking for “oppa” (older brother, a term of endearment used in many Kdramas) to watch out for online predators.
While there are many legit language exchange programs, you should look out for men asking to do language exchanges with foreign women only. Things don’t always turn out well and there have been reports of rape or attempted rape. See more in the Solo Female Travel Safety section below. You’ll know things are strange when you receive a text message stating, “You are my ideal type”.
One last scam one of my friend’s has personally come across are the bars who extort money from you. Friendly bar reps or even “strangers” (they work for the club but don’t say so) entice males into their clubs, offering sexy girls and VIP tables. You will be guided into the swanky establishment to a VIP table and sit down. You then order the one bottle minimum per table.
After having a fun time your check comes and you are charged for more than you ordered, exorbitant amounts. There is no escape other than paying the large sum of money as the army-trained bouncers will not let you leave. So always visit established bars and clubs and know what is financially involved before entering. Sometimes they even say there was a “language miscommunication”, when things were very clear.
Transportation safety in South Korea
One of the most important issues concerning safety in South Korea is transportation. Not necessarily because taking public transportation is not safe, but more being a pedestrian in a country with a high rate of pedestrian accidents due to the aggressive driving style of Korean drivers.
What follows is some facts and tips on transportation safety in South Korea, from taking public transportation to scooter and bike rentals, hiring a car and being a pedestrian.
If you want to know about the ins and outs of transportation beyond only the safety aspects, check out our General South Korea travel tips on public transportation section in our 50+ Insider South Korea Travel Tips From A Long Term Expat article.
Cab safety in South Korea
Taxis are all over South Korea. If you can’t see one in the street, there’s bound to be one nearby, especially in the more metropolitan cities. They are affordable, quick and pride themselves on being brilliant drivers (even though some can feel like roller coasters).
If you’re at a station, there is usually a taxi rank where they are waiting for passengers. Your hotel will also be able to call one for you through the service known as “Call Taxi”. If you are able to read Korean, you can even download apps like KakoaTaxi or Tada, the Korean version of Uber or Grab.
You may even encounter a “Best Driver” which means they have received an award from the Korea Best Driver organization which promotes safe driving within the domestic taxi industry. They will have medals with a number on representing the number of years they have driven without a single crash. You are in good hands with a Best Driver (although they may ride the brakes making the ride a little sickening).
The biggest threats when riding taxis concerns driving alternative routes to make more money or not using the meter. It is illegal for taxis to scam passengers in these ways so if you do feel as though you are being scammed, you can insist they stop the car or take a picture of their license which is always displayed prominently and report them to the authorities.
If the meter is not on, get out and take another cab. The only time they won’t use the meter is if you have discussed a price beforehand or are going far, i.e. Incheon Airport to East Seoul or Seoul to Gyeonggi Province late at night, in which case a price will be set from the beginning so you would ask about that.
There are a few things to note about taking a taxi in South Korea that may leave you flustered. The first is that some taxis only go to certain areas, for example, Gyeonggi or Seoul taxis. Another is that the driver may decline to give you a ride for some reason or other, for example, maybe they are riding back home and want to go in that direction or maybe the destination is too close. In this case they will wave you away and say “No!”.
Bus safety in South Korea
Bus drivers are kings of the road in South Korea. They will push into traffic no matter if the person in the next lane is driving a jalopy or the newest Tesla.
Drivers stick to strict schedules and can oftentimes feel like they are competing in the Kentucky Derby. Sometimes they stop so close to the bus in front that you think they’re going to crash. In my experience, they never do, although it never gets easier as a passenger.
As far as safety goes, busses are generally safe to catch and a great form of public transportation, especially if you are traveling between districts. There are a few things to note about catching the bus beyond safety.
The first is that you will always need to stick out your hand to hail a bus like you do a taxi, especially in more remote stops. If you are the only one at the stop and don’t stick out your hand, the driver may drive right passed you.
When you have to get off the bus, push the red button one stop before and make sure you have your bus card ready if you didn’t pay with cash. You need to scan the card both before and after your ride. If you don’t have your card ready, the driver may not wait for you to find it and will just keep going or will start screaming at you.
Buses can get absolutely packed during rush hour. You may not get a seat at these times and will have to stand, packed like sardines (even during Covid). Bus drivers usually drive like the Mad Hatter, like they need to be somewhere yesterday. Be sure to hold onto something at all times if you’re standing, especially when the bus pulls off from the stop, otherwise you’ll go flying.
Etiquette states that you must give up your seat for the elderly, disabled or pregnant women, even if you are not sitting in one of the allocated seats. Some buses allow for mobility impaired individuals.
There are different kinds of busses depending on how far they are traveling, for example, in Seoul the yellow and blue buses are local, the red buses go between cities and the purple rides to the airports.
Note that the local buses sometimes don’t complete a full loop of all the stops on the map. They may stop in the middle of nowhere at the bus depot without saying anything. Make sure you know where you are going and ask the driver if they will go to this stop by stating “ABC kayo?” (“Are you going to ABC?”).
It’s not uncommon for bus drivers to stop at the red traffic light, get out of the bus and have a smoke or toilet break before jumping back into the bus and continuing with their route.
Subway safety in South Korea
Subway safety is impeccable. The stations are always clean, with convenience stores, CCTV cameras, public bathrooms, lost and found and other amenities. Once you scan your card and enter the subway platform there are usually seats and vending machines and sometimes art or even libraries.
Not every city in South Korea has a subway system, but the major ones do, including Seoul which connects to Gyeonggi Province, Busan, Daegu, Incheon, Gwangju and Daejeon.
The seats in the subway cart are heated in winter and the aircon blasts in summer so they are always comfortable if not a bit overboard with the heating/cooling. Due to the ubiquity of the CCTV cameras, you are almost always safe from pickpockets or small-time thieves who would rather take their chances in a less protected area.
There has recently been a crackdown on “subway perverts” who take their chances on unsuspecting victims by either filming up their skirts or touching women inappropriately, especially during peak hour traffic when people are crammed into subway carts, unable to move around.
If this should happen to you, there are buttons and phones in the actual subway cart to call security. You can also call the number 112 on your cellphone or report them on the Seoul subway app. Just report the cart number you’re in and they will meet you and the aggressor at the next stop.
Other than this, keep your valuables close to you at all times and if you place anything in the bag racks above the seats, make sure to take them with you when you get off the subway cart. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve hung something on the rack above and forgotten it. I always get it back from lost and found, but it is quite a mission to report it. Koreans generally don’t like to put things on the ground, as they see it as dirty, and you may want to join in so that you don’t feel left out.
Rental bikes and scooter safety in South Korea
The newest form of transportation to flow into Korea are public bicycles and e-scooters. This is a godsend for those who live far away from any station and they are becoming really popular with locals and tourists alike.
Yet with the rise in use there is also an increase in accidents and even fatalities. As will be explained in the section on pedestrians, Koreans generally have a very unique walking pattern. I’m not sure why this is the case, but instead of being aware of people around them when walking, they tend to just walk straight, not moving out of the way for passersby.
This may seem like a blanket statement, but after 10 years of living here, I am just reporting on what I have experienced. I once did an experiment for a local newspaper where I walked in a straight line for one block in Gangnam to see how many people moved out the way, the answer is almost no one. I crashed into many people.
Add e-scooters into the equation and things can get dangerous. If you are using an e-scooter, please be highly aware of others and don’t go too fast. Even if someone has acknowledged you with their eyes, they may still not move out of the way. Consider right turning cars too that may drive directly into you even if it’s your right of way. Just go very slow and be aware that things work differently here from your country.
The most easily accessible scooter is Lime. Most of the Korean brands like G Cooter, Beam and Kickgoing require the rider to have a Korean-issued driver’s license. I have no idea why they decided to this when they have classified scooters in the same category as bicycles, but it is what it is. If you use a Korean friend’s license and are involved in an accident, it could be disastrous as their license could be revoked.
Pedestrian safety in South Korea
This brings me to pedestrian safety in South Korea. My personal choice for the least safe thing in South Korea. As mentioned above, being a pedestrian in South Korea is very different from elsewhere in the world. You always have to be on the lookout for other aggressive walkers and drivers. Especially now that the entire country seems to be glued to their smartphones, even when walking in groups.
Jaywalking is illegal in Korea. This means that you will need to wait for the light to go green in order to walk across the road legally. The flashing green light means “do not start crossing” and if something should happen to you while doing this, under the law you are not a pedestrian but rather a jaywalker. Yet even after waiting for the green pedestrian light, it doesn’t mean you’re fully safe.
I was once walking at a cross section in a very busy UNESCO area (Namhansanseong Village) with roughly 50 other people at a green pedestrian light. The stopped car, for who knows what reason, decided to edge forward directly into me while I was crossing the road. My 4 year old niece was standing on the opposite side of me luckily. The old man got out of his car and ran into a nearby convenience store, possibly because he was drunk, with his car still running and traffic behind him. Luckily I wasn’t hurt, neither was my little niece.
I am always on the lookout for drivers and motorists in Korea. Delivery men on scooters even ride on pavements and rush through red lights! And now with the ubiquity of e-scooters, pedestrian accidents are on the rise.
You will need to get used to the way Korea pedestrians walk, as the deluge of people mostly don’t notice others, often head down glued to cell phones, with many collisions. But this is mostly in congested areas.
Korea otherwise is an extremely walkable country with paved walking and cycling paths next to streams, free outdoor exercise equipment, dog parks and a range of fantastic public amenities.
I understand that my writing about Korean pedestrians might shed a harsh light, but I am talking about safety, so my focus here is on being safe. I’ve been hit twice by cars when it was my right of way and have experienced and seen many pedestrians and e-scooters crash into each other. Walking in South Korea is not always so life-and-death and is usually very pleasant in more open areas. Just please be careful and walk with an open mind and open eyes.
Driving safety in South Korea
Even though I own a car, I am still concerned about driving in South Korea. It’s very different from other countries I have driven in and involves the Korean concept of “nunchi” which has been touted by the media as “the Korean secret to happiness” after the success of Euny Hong’s book, but I personally call it the “Korean secret to stress”.
It’s a sort of situational awareness and social ‘art of understanding’ where you need to sense how others are feeling around you and act accordingly. It can be very endearing when you’re feeling low and your coworker senses it and buys you a coffee. But if you aren’t raised with nunchi it can be daunting trying to sense everyone’s feelings all the time, especially when it comes to driving.
Oftentimes, Koreans will make a turn, after which they turn on their flicker. You really need to be aware of the micro movements of Korean drivers, using your senses to preempt lane changes. You also need to learn to be an aggressive driver in Korea lest you want cars hooting at you from behind, pressuring you to move into oncoming traffic.
Speed limits are very low in Korea, especially around school zones. There are also speed cameras all over the place, so you will need to stick to the limit. Your GPS will constantly warn you of the speed cameras.
It is also recommended to learn Hangul, the Korean alphabet, and the laws of the road before driving as signage may not always be in English. There is always traffic throughout the country, but more so during rush hours and in major cities. It’s very possible that a 10 minute ride could become an hour-long journey depending on the time you leave. Leaving twenty minutes can make a massive difference.
If you are here on holiday and plan to take a day trip from Seoul, I would recommend taking public transportation over hiring a car. It’s by far less stressful and if you aren’t venturing out into the rural areas, there will always be taxis available.
If you are hiring a car using a contactless car service like GreenCar, you will need a valid Korean driver’s license that has been obtained for over a year. Rental cars from places like Lotte Rent-a-Car are fine with a valid international driver’s permit.
Travel safety in South Korea
In this section we get a bit more specific about the different types of personal safety in South Korea including taking a trip as a solo female traveler or part of the LGBTQIA+ community, family safety and if there is a prevalence of racism or xenophobia.
Solo female travel safety in South Korea
US Travel “Specialized hospital units and police are available in South Korea to assist victims, however services in English and responsiveness to the crime are not always consistent. In general, sex crimes are not punished as harshly in South Korea as in the United States and the road to prosecution is a challenging one for victims”.
In a survey done by Solo Female Travelers Club in 2020 where 7 variables were taken into account, the resulting information found that South Korea was the 9th safest country for solo female travelers to visit. The variables included the US & UK Travel Advisories, the Global Peace Index, Risk of theft, Risk of scam, Risk of harassment & Attitudes towards women.
Safety in South Korea for solo female travelers is generally very high, although standout concerns include sex crimes and the imbedded Confucianist culture that is evasive throughout the country.
While sex crimes against foreigners is not a usual occurence, it should be noted that these devastating crimes or very often overlooked by the law in South Korea which is what happend to Australian Airdre Mattner in 2016 after she was drugged and raped.
Foreigners have minimal rights in the eyes of the law which leads to many people not involving themselves in altercations in the chance that they may lose their jobs or be deported.
One comment I have personally seen on many online expat groups is the stereotype that Russian women are prostitutes and Korean men falsely think that white women are Russian by default and prostitutes by association. If a Korean man asks, “Are you Russian?”, you know what he is insinuating.
Another thing to look out for is the abundance of “molca” or spy cameras that are set up in public bathroom facilities and waterparks. Precautions are being taken to abate these like law enforcement waving infrared scanners that can spot a lens and detect electrical charges. Still it is recommended to take precautions by downloading apps like Detectify that you can use to make sure you are in the clear in public spaces.
South Korea is based in Confucianism, which among many positives (“filial piety” or devotion to family), there are some negatives, especially those based on gender roles.
Traditional roles for women are the norm and rarely extend out of the household. The World Economic Forum and United Nations reports actually ranked South Korean gender empowerment among some of the lowest in the developed world.
While the younger generation is beginning to change their conception about stereotypical gender identities, much of the culture is still based on archaic standards. Men from older generations will still think of women in general as inferior and may treat them as such. This is even the case when a woman holds the most senior position in a corporate environment.
While female travelers will usually be greeted with warmth and equality, there may be undertones of inferiority as the “lesser sex”. So there are some difficulties you may experience while traveling the country solo. There is no danger to your physical wellbeing here, but it is a warning to those from more open-minded countries where gender equality is prevalent.
Family safety in South Korea
South Korea is exceptionally safe for foreign families to travel. Malls provide stroller services, there are “kid’s cafes” all over the place, Seoul and its surrounds have several amusement parks and aquariums and there are safe walking paths and parks throughout the country.
South Korea is very family-friendly as it is a developed economy, has affordable options for all budgets, the major cities are modern and clean, and there are free amenities throughout from separate family bathrooms at most public spaces to kids’ parks at almost every turn.
Public transportation makes things very accessible, doctors are required to speak at least some English, but there are international hospitals too, and most tourist places are stroller friendly. The best part is that citizens from the majority of countries can enter without a visa (see our visa section above for more).
LGBTQIA+ travel safety in South Korea
Recently, right-wing lawmakers introduced legislation which would remove “sexual orientation” as a possible source of discrimination. However, South Korea is still a very conservative and conformist country. Same-sex marriage is not recognized and same-sex couples are still met with hostility.
Same-sex couples are not seen as families in the eyes of the law and even the liberal president Moon Jae-in has publicly renounced homosexuality (he is a former human rights lawyer). While all men need to be enlisted for military duty, homosexual is classified as a “personality or behavioural disability” that can be institutionalized or dishonorably discharged.
During the Tokyo 2020 Olympics there was a lot of backlash about one of the archer’s haircuts. Even though An San won three gold medals for her country, many people started accusing her of being part of the radical feminist group, Megalia, stating that she should have her medals revoked. This is the sentiment of a minority of Korean men, so being female with short hair should not be a problem at all.
Public displays of affection in South Korea are generally frowned upon, even in heterosexual relationships. So same-sex couples will also need to follow this lead in order not to draw unwanted negative attention.
There is the massive annual Seoul Queer Culture Festival which sees over 200,000 visitors each year and has been attempted to be blocked by Christian groups.
One of the most celebrated queer figures in Korea is Hong Seok-cheon who came out with much backlash in 2000. He is only one out of a handful of openly gay celebrities. Wikipedia references only 19 public figures under the title “LGBT people from South Korea”.
It is quite contradictory that many Kpop stars are idolised for being androgynous, but homosexuality is shunned. The industry is slowly changing though with Kpop performers like MRSHLL and Holland recently coming out.
While it will be safe for people from the LGBTQIA+ community to visit, this is only if you decide to hide your sexual orientation and relationship, which may make you a target for verbal and possibly physical altercations. Nonetheless, one of the safest places to be openly queer is in Itaewon in Seoul where they have the derogatory nickname of “Homo Hill” with queer clubs and pubs.
Racism & xenophobia
While North Korea lives by a code of juche (self-reliance), South Korea chose to encompass segyehwa (globalisation) as an official policy in 1995. There was a push for internationalisation and globalisation, not only for products and economics, but also for society and culture.
So while South Korea can be seen as an internationally accepting country, it is still a homogeneous and quite closed-off society.
This is despite the increasing amount of outbound Koreans traveling abroad each year. My in-laws always go on Korean tours with Korean people and eat at Korean restaurants when traveling abroad to places like Russia and Canada. My father-in-law packed his own kimchi when visiting South Africa, even though there is plenty of kimchi there.
Racism and xenophobia in South Korea can be outright or extremely subtle. The prominent displays of racial discrimination are evident and can include evil looks, people spitting in your general direction to verbal abuse and even physical altercations. A man walked past me once in Itaewon and yelled “I hate Americans!” right into my face. I said, “Good thing I’m South African then” and walked away. Country profiling is dominant, such as “all white men are American” and the weight of stereotypes is heavy.
Bars, clubs, pubs and restaurants can shut their doors to anyone they please, refusing entry to very targeted groups. This means that if the owner of a bar decides that “Africans” are not allowed into the property because they carry Ebola virus (a very extreme statement, but one that has been used before), they can refuse all “Africans” entry based on nationality or skin color. What’s worse, if the person being refused service takes a picture of the establishment and posts it online, they can be sued for defamation.
More subtle forms of racial profiling include stereotyping and racial misidentify. People from abroad are all grouped together into a cluster known as “waygukin” which translates to “foreigners”. No matter whether you’re from Kuwait, Senegal, Argentina or the Philippines, you are “waguk saram” (“foreign people”). As you can see, this forms a very “us vs them” mentality. This feeling is palpable when you live in Korea, but not so much when visiting on a holiday.
Foreigner rights are miniscule and 7 in 10 foreigners say that racism exists. It was recently reported that South Koreans quickly complain if they are victims of racism, but are not too concerned about intolerance in their own country, which proves a double standard.
There is definite and blatant racism in South Korea, particularly against Southeast Asian migrant workers and Black people including those from African countries and African Americans. The answer I receive when I state I’m a white male from South Africa is, “Oh, that’s strange, how come your skin isn’t dark?”
I was in a very popular store in Itaewon trying on shoes when the store clerk said to me out of nowhere, “Why are black people so angry and violent all the time?” I quickly walked out of there and never returned.
While many foreigners complain about being victimised, it must be stated that oftentimes, especially from the older generation, the Korean person is probably just shy or curious. Many times I’ve been given the evil stare down in public, but when I ask if “there’s something on my face”, the person smiles wide and starts asking me questions about my country. They indeed were not judging me, but just curious about me that I looked different.
Oftentimes store clerks will help everyone insight except the foreigner. This is usually not xenophobia, but rather shyness as they think their English ability is too low and they feel ashamed.
So yes, like in any country, racism and xenophobia are prevalent, but as far as safety is concerned, you will be alright 99% of the time and will most likely not notice it. It mostly starts showing when you have lived in the country for a while and start to really understand the culture then it can have a very heavy psychological toll.
Water & food safety in South Korea
Although the majority of Koreans will never drink tap water, the country does have safe tap water that is constantly monitored, especially in newer buildings where the pipes are made with newer materials. I personally use a shower filter that I need to change every 2 months as it gets filthy. Always err on the side of caution and always drink bottled or filtered water. There is usually free self-service water at most restaurants which is safe to drink as it is filtered.
A bottle of water is under a dollar and can be bought at any convenience store in the country. Sometimes there are buy one get one free specials, just look out for “1+1”, “2+1” etc.
There is mostly always self-service drinking water in every mall, food court and restaurant. This is filtered and you can choose between hot and cold. Always take water with you when going for hikes, mountain water in the more rural areas is safe to drink at certain spots, but I would urge you not to do so. Do not drink out of the river, but rather at the taps or pipes sporadically dispersed at some of the trails. This is naturally flowing water and is usually accompanied with large drinking spoons, but this has disappeared after Covid.
Accommodation safety in South Korea
All forms of accommodation are safe in South Korea. The most trouble you will have is a language barrier. There are various different forms of accommodation which you may want to familiarise yourself with before booking. I have written extensively about it here.
I have seen on some forums that foreigners were denied entry to a hotel after booking due to racial or xenophobic discrimination. But I have personally never experienced this and I have traveled extensively throughout South Korea. The only time I was denied a stay was when I was younger and backpacking with 4 other men. We didn’t have much cash and opted to stay in a love motel. They thought we had amorous intentions and quickly shooed us away.
All major hotel chains will be very welcoming and respectful of their guests and service is bound to be impeccable. Read my article on where to stay in Seoul for an extensive run down of all the areas of the capital and a list of the best luxury hotels. Here’s a table for easy access.
|Hotel||District||Price||More photos and availability|
|Four Seasons||Jongno-gu||US$290||Booking.com | Agoda|
|JW Marriott Dongdaemun Seoul Square||Jongno-gu||US$225||Booking.com | Agoda|
|JW Marriott Dongdaemun Seoul Square||Jongno-gu||US$380||Booking.com | Agoda|
|The Shilla||Jung-gu||US$240||Booking.com | Agoda|
|Lotte Hotel Seoul||Jung-gu||US$180||Booking.com | Agoda|
|The Westin Chosun||Jung-gu||US$274||Booking.com | Agoda|
|The Plaza - Autograph Collection||Jung-gu||US$250||Booking.com | Agoda|
|Millennium Hilton Seoul||Jung-gu||US$230||Booking.com | Agoda|
|Banyan Tree Club & Spa Seoul||Jung-gu||US$550||Booking.com | Agoda|
|Grand Ambassador Seoul associated with Pullman||Jung-gu||US$165||Booking.com | Agoda|
|L'Escape Hotel||Jung-gu||US$200||Booking.com | Agoda|
|Lotte Hotel Seoul Executive Tower||Jung-gu||US$325||Booking.com
|Novotel Ambassador Seoul Dongdaemun Hotels & Residences||Jung-gu||US$190||Booking.com | Agoda|
|Intercontinental COEX||Gangnam-gu||US$164||Booking.com | Agoda|
|Park Hyatt||Gangnam-gu||US$345||Booking.com | Agoda|
|Imperial Palace Seoul||Gangnam-gu||US$390||Booking.com | Agoda|
|Le Meridien Seoul||Gangnam-gu||US$260||Booking.com | Agoda|
|Lotte World Hotel||Songpa-gu||US$140||Booking.com | Agoda|
|Signiel Seoul||Songpa-gu||US$415||Booking.com | Agoda|
|JW Marriott Hotel Seoul||Seocho-gu||US$285||Booking.com | Agoda|
|Vista Walkerhill Seoul||Gwangjin-gu||US$260||Booking.com | Agoda|
|GLAD Hotel||Yeongdeungpo-gu (Yeouido)||US$90||Booking.com | Agoda|
|The Conrad||Yeongdeungpo-gu (Yeouido)||US$190||Booking.com | Agoda|
|Grand Hyatt||Yongsan-gu||US$225||Booking.com | Agoda|
|Grand Mercure Ambassador Hotel and Residences Seoul Yongsan||Yongsan-gu||US$220||Booking.com | Agoda|
|ibis Styles Ambassador Seoul Yongsan||Yongsan-gu||US$140||Booking.com | Agoda|
|Novotel Suites Ambassador Seoul Yongsan||Yongsan-gu||US$175||Booking.com | Agoda|
|RYSE Hotel - Autograph Collection Marriott||Mapo-gu||US$209||Booking.com | Agoda|
|Walkerhill Douglas House||Gwangjin-gu||US$275||Booking.com | Agoda|
|Courtyard by Marriott Seoul Botanic Park||Gangseo-gu||US$145||Booking.com | Agoda|
Air quality & fine dust
When I first arrived in South Korea, I knew nothing about how bad the air quality was. My first experience with yellow dust (known as Hwangsa 황사) was quite naive. I commented to a friend how pretty the yellow sky looked. I first brushed off my friends’ cautions as being over exaggerations, until I started having chest issues.
So what is yellow dust and how will it affect your travels?
Yellow dust originates in the Gobi Desert of Northern China and Mongolia, and is carried into the Korean Peninsula via strong winds and the jet stream. This creates reduced visibility and an apocalyptic sort of feel, although occasionally it can be clear.
What’s worse, the dust carries industrial pollutants (pesticides), viruses, fungi, bacteria & heavy metals – all in micro particles that can’t be seen with the naked eye. It usually flows in from March to May and it is best to get an air quality app like AirVisual if you are visiting during these times.
Beyond the yellow dust, which is seasonal, you will need to constantly check for fine dust pollution known as misaemonji (미세 먼지). This is a constant flow of fine particulate matter coming from pollutants like exhaust fumes or smoke from factories.
The particles are under 10 micrometers in diameter with ultrafine dust particles being less than 2.5 micrometers. Some days are better than others and it is countrywide but usually worse on the West Coast and in the center of the country. It is a mixture of pollution from Seoul and from China.
The air quality can get so bad on some days that Seoul becomes the most polluted city in the world, beating New Delhi and Dhaka.
The good news is that it doesn’t last longer than a day or two at a time and on other days the air is clear and fairly healthy, especially in Autumn. Check your app to see how bad the air quality is. If it’s really terrible, make it a mall day and purchase a KF95 mask when going outside.
The situation with North Korea
North and South Korea are currently in an armistice, as they never officially ended the Korean War. While international media usually blows the situation out of proportion, North Korea is never really seen as a threat in South Korea. This is most likely because military service is mandatory for all Korean men and there is a strong US army presence in the country.
The North is seen as the “boy who cried wolf”, dismissing any threats of attack from its leaders. You can even visit the border between the two countries at the Demilitarization Zone (DMZ) on a guided tour during a day trip from Seoul.
As it currently stands, you will be safe in regards to the North Korea “threat”, in fact, you won’t think about it at all when in the country. I often learn about missile launches and the like from family and friends texting me “Are you ok?” and I have no idea what they’re talking about.
- Check if you need a visa, get help processing it at iVisa.
- Never ever leave without travel insurance. Get affordable coverage from World Nomads or long term insurance from Safety Wing.
- I find all of my flights on KAYAK. Check their Deals section too.
- Search for all your transportation between destinations on the trusted travel booking platform Bookaway.
- I book all my day trips and tours via GetYourGuide, they are the best and their tours are refundable up to 24h in advance.
- Get USD35 off your first booking with Airbnb.
- Compare hotels EVERYWHERE at HotelsCombined and book with Booking.com.
- Compare car rental prices at Rentalcars.com