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Overseas Security Advisory Council
Bureau of Diplomatic Security
U.S. Department of State

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South Korea 2019 Crime & Safety Report

The current U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory at the date of this report’s publication assesses South Korea at Level 1, indicating travelers should exercise normal precautions.

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

The U.S. Embassy in Seoul does not assume responsibility for the professional ability or integrity of the persons or firms appearing in this report. The American Citizen Services (ACS) unit cannot recommend a particular individual or establishment and assumes no responsibility for the quality of services provided.

Review OSAC’s South Korea page for original OSAC reporting, consular messages, and contact information, some of which may be available only to private-sector representatives with an OSAC password.

Crime Threats

There is minimal risk from crime in Seoul and Busan. Crimes involving violence are relatively uncommon, and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) remains a very safe country for most visitors. There have been few reported incidents involving U.S. Embassy officials, military personnel, or private citizens. A majority of incidents can be characterized as petty crime, such as pickpocketing and the theft of unattended belongings, occuring more frequently in major metropolitan areas, tourist sites, and shopping districts. In Seoul, this includes areas like Itaewon, Sinchon, Myeongdong, Gangnam, and Hongdae.

When traveling in South Korea, stay alert to any unusual activity around your home, hotel, or place of business. Although violent crime is relatively uncommon, consider traveling in groups when going out at night and use only legitimate taxis or public transportation. Report any significant incidents to the local police at 112.

In recent years, the U.S. Embassy has received multiple reports of sexual assault from U.S. citizens. Most cases involved acquaintance-assault of young women after drinking alcohol in social settings. Specialized hospital units and police are available to assist victims, however the responsiveness and availability of English-language assistance are not always consistent. In general, punishment for sex crimes is not as harsh in South Korea as in the U.S., and the process for prosecuting offenders can be challenging.

Burglaries of occupied residences are rare. While crimes involving firearms are extremely rare due to stringent gun control laws, violent crimes sometimes occur, and most commonly involve the use of knives.

Cybersecurity Issues

South Korea is a world leader in Internet connectivity, reportedly having the world’s fastest Internet connection speed and the highest internet use per capita. The Internet penetration rate is over 85%, and the smart phone penetration rate is 80%. On an individual level, the threat of cybercrime is moderate but is steadily increasing. Phishing schemes and thefts of personally identifiable information (PII) for criminal intent have increased. Incidents involving defamation, which is a criminal offense, have also increased.

South Korea has experienced an increase in the number of private-sector network intrusions, Distribution Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, and use of malicious software to disrupt networks. Hackers have also targeted Korean financial institutions, stealing Korean Identification Numbers (KID, similar to a U.S. Social Security Number and is used in Korea as a primary identity document for personal and financial transactions) and other PII, ostensibly with financial motives. The use of malicious software to disrupt or shut down government and private-sector networks continues to impact the economy negatively and jeopardize the security of critical infrastructure. In 2014, cyber malefactors using malicious software gained access to the Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Company.

There have been several high-profile incidents involving privacy and data leaks. In 2014, for example, a worker at the Korea Credit Bureau stole PII from 20 million Koreans, leading to a massive effort to replace compromised credit cards. In 2012, hackers compromised the private information of 8.7 million KT Mobile users. In 2011, hackers compromised the personal data of over 35 million SK Communications users.

Do not leave personal electronic items that contain sensitive information unsecured in hotel rooms.

Other Areas of Concern

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and South Korea technically remain in a state of war. There is peace on the Korean Peninsula because of the armistice agreement that has endured since 1953. In the past two decades, the number and type of political, economic, and social interactions between the Koreas have increased. Bilateral tensions remain moderately high, and have escalated into limited military confrontation.

Tensions between both countries intensified in 2017 and 2018, with North Korea conducting multiple missile tests that revealed enhanced capabilities and range. The missile tests were viewed as provocations by the U.S. and allies, which exacerbated political and diplomatic relations. The 2018 summit between the United States and North Korea was an effort to engage in dialogue, reduce tensions, and normalize relations.

Stay informed through local media about military exercises and civil defense drills that sometimes occur at short notice, and for which the Embassy may not always be able to provide advance notification.

The security situation between South and North Korea has been relatively stable since the two countries’ leaders’ historic meeting in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in 2018. The two leaders declared that they would work together toward the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula and formally ending the Korean War. Since then, South and North Korea have engaged in tension-reduction efforts, such as removing landmines and other explosives from parts of the DMZ. In late December, the two countries held an official ceremony in the North Korean border town of Kaesong as part of a major railway project aiming to connect the countries.

Despite these positive developments between the two Koreas, the DMZ is still an area of relatively high tension due to the possibility of cross-border incidents. Such incidents may include North Koreans attempts to defect to the South by crossing the border, which has caused North Korean security personnel open fire. Such was the case as recently as December, when a North Korean solider defected to South Korea by fleeing across the DMZ.

The Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) of the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, warns travelers that many areas within the DMZ are located beyond the Civilian Control Line and are not open to individual tourists. KTO recommends that travelers book DMZ travel and tour packages through KORAIL (Korea Railroad Corporation) run by the Korean Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transportation. Travelers must bring a legitimate form of identification and/or passport when visiting the DMZ.

The area beyond the Dora Observatory (at the northernmost point of the Military Demarcation Line) is under a military outpost command; photography is strictly prohibited. To avoid security incidents in the DMZ, confirm whether photography/filming is allowed in each area.

Civil Emergency Exercises

South Korean authorities often hold civil emergency exercises. These exercises may include the activation of sirens. During these procedures, transportation stops and individuals must take shelter indoors, including in designated metro stations or basements. Most public shelters in South Korea are marked with a special symbol. Participation of foreign nationals in these exercises is not obligatory, but is recommended.

Transportation-Safety Situation

Road Safety and Road Conditions

Roads are generally well paved, and traffic signals are operational. Seasonal heavy rains can cause isolated sections of road to become temporarily blocked or washed out. South Korea’s mountainous topography results in unusual road networks and interchanges in some areas. Foreigners who cannot read Korean report that road signs are difficult for navigation.

Drivers can be aggressive, especially in large cities. Vehicles frequently do not yield to pedestrians in marked crosswalks. Drivers do not always obey traffic signage or lights.

South Korea's traffic-related deaths have been on a steady decline. The country's traffic accident fatality rate was 8.13 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2017, approximately 30% less than that of the United States.

Seatbelt use in front seats is compulsory. Rear seatbelt use is optional on inner-city and rural roads. The improvement of children’s safety has been one of the most important successes in the past two decades. The number of children killed in traffic accidents continues to decrease due to use of child safety devices.

It is very common to find a “black box” installed in vehicles. Black boxes are small surveillance cameras installed in the front and/or back of vehicle that record everything happening around a vehicle. Police use video footage taken from these black boxes for investigations and evidence in court; insurance companies use it to catch/prevent insurance fraud.

All riders of motorized two-wheelers must wear helmets. There is no mandatory helmet use law for cyclists.

Public Transportation Conditions

In Seoul, most people use the public transportation system instead of driving on congested roadways. South Korea has a modern, efficient public transportation system that integrates subways, trains, and buses. The reliability and ease of this sprawling, vast network affords people the opportunity to travel between smaller towns and urban areas. Trains, buses, and subways are generally clean and punctual; most stations have signs in Korean and English. Timetable and bus stop names are typically in Korean, and bus drivers for the most part do not speak English. Although public transportation systems are safe, petty crimes of opportunity can occur.

Taxis are abundant; you may safely hail them from the street, or coordinate through hotel guest services. While most taxis are safe and reliable, there are occasional reports of taxi scams in which drivers stop at disreputable gem/souvenir shops or refuse to use the meter and quote unreasonable fares. Ensure taxi drivers use the meter. Visitors who cannot speak/read Korean should ask their hotel for language cards with the names and contact information for their hotel, destinations, etc.

Aviation/Airport Conditions

Seoul Incheon International Airport (ICN) is one of the largest, busiest airports in the world, providing service to over 90 airlines. ICN replaced Gimpo International Airport (GMP) as the primary international airport in the early 2000s. GMP now mostly services domestic destinations, with some flights to Japan and China.

Other Travel Conditions

In response to the 2014 Sewol Ferry disaster, South Korea strengthened maritime safety regulations. The disaster had a profound impact on Korean society, encouraging government proactivity in instituting additional measures to reduce (if not prevent) future maritime accidents.

Terrorism Threat

Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns

There is minimal risk from terrorism in Busan and Seoul. There is currently no information to suggest any specific terrorist threats directed at U.S. citizens or interests. Although there has not been a terrorist incident against U.S. interests in South Korea in recent history, U.S. travelers remain subject to threat of international terrorism worldwide, and the possibility of a lone-wolf actor or transnational terrorist organization attempting to carry out an attack cannot be ruled out.

Anti-U.S./Anti-Western Sentiment

South Korea is one of the most pro-U.S. countries in the world. Though relatively uncommon, there have been periods with increased anti-U.S. sentiment due to high-profile accidents and crimes committed by U.S. service members (there are approximately 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea), as well as by unpopular U.S. policies.

U.S. government deployment of the Thermal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in Korea caused an increase in anti-U.S. protests and demonstrations. In 2011, there were mass demonstrations in Seoul protested the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. In 2008, mass demonstrations in Seoul the importation of American beef.

There have not been any incidents and/or policies that have elevated anti-U.S. sentiment in recent years. However, the potential for demonstrations increases as the dialogue between U.S. and North Korea on denuclearization continues.

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence

Civil Unrest

There is moderate risk from civil unrest in Busan and Seoul. More than 68,000 demonstrations occurred throughout Korea in 2018. Many demonstrations in Seoul occur on Gwanghwamun Plaza, in front of the U.S. Embassy, where many Korean government offices and buildings are also located (this includes the “Blue House,” the office and residence of the South Korean president). Demonstrations are also frequently held at Seoul Plaza, approximately 200 meters south of Gwanghwamun Plaza. Protests can often exceed 50,000 participants, and often involve a procession throughout downtown Seoul. Although the KNPA monitors demonstrations, and keeps traffic lanes open during protests, large demonstrations often snarl traffic, especially downtown. Demonstrations and rallies are also common in areas surrounding military installations. Demonstrations tend to be peaceful in nature.

Foreigners may not participate in political demonstrations depending on the terms of their visa. All demonstrations require a permit.

Post-specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards

South Korea experiences earthquakes, but most result in little or no damage. The most recent major earthquake was a 5.4-magnitude tremor in Buk-gu, Pohang, North Gyeongsang in 2017.

Heavy rains and flooding may occur during the monsoon season (June – August) or the typhoon season (May – November). See Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) information about natural disaster preparedness.

Critical Infrastructure Concerns

Infrastructure is highly developed, due in part to the desire for continued economic growth. Historically, safety issues have stemmed from limited enforcement of regulations, minimal consequences for violators, and a tendency to value economic progress over safety. Because of the April 2014 Sewol Ferry disaster and the October 2014 collapse of a ventilation grate that led to the death of 16 people at a music concert, public perception has shifted; there is now an emphasis on the need for stricter enforcement of safety standards.

Economic Concerns

South Korea has made significant strides in the protection of intellectual property rights. Authorities cooperate with U.S. law enforcement to pursue criminal investigations and to seize counterfeit goods, including luxury items. Because of persistent and coordinated police enforcement efforts by, the private sector, and local governments, South Korea’s counterfeit goods problem has decreased considerably in recent years. In 2018, a small U.S. supplier of innovative display technology complained that their Korean partner copied their designs.

Drug-related Crimes

Reports indicate that traffickers smuggle an undetermined quantity of narcotics through South Korea to Japan and other countries. Authorities have taken significant steps to counter drug transshipment. In Seoul, most drug-related offenses occur in the Gangnam and Yongsan Districts, and often involve drugs distributed through nightclubs.

Government laws on marijuana and marijuana products are strict. Travelers who possess any form of marijuana, to include those that may be legal in other countries, will be prosecuted and/or deported.

Kidnapping Threat

Kidnappings are rare, but do occur. KNPA crime statistics for 2017 reflected a total of 206 indicted kidnapping cases. A handful of high-profile cases over the last year lie far outside the norm.

Health Concerns

Seoul air pollution levels are similar to that of many large U.S. cities. Moderate air pollution levels are not continuous, but episodic and seasonal. Smog predominates in the summer. In the winter, particulate and sulfur oxides from coal-fired heating and industrial processes are more common. Overall levels of winter pollution have decreased in Seoul in the last ten years, largely due to the switch to natural gas for heating and industry. However, summertime smog has increased due to the growing number of vehicles. Accurate daily air quality readings for Seoul are readily available, along with recommendations based upon the level.

Korea experiences a spring weather phenomenon called Hwangsa, or "yellow sand." This phenomenon usually occurs in April and May, when yellow sand blows eastward from the Gobi Desert. During dry spring weather, the desert dust rides on a strong ascending atmospheric air current, crossing the Yellow Sea. This annual deposit of dust contains traces of cadmium, copper, lead, and other harmful metallic particles, as well as sulfur dioxide. Sand in metropolitan Seoul usually persists for a few morning hours. In addition to darkening the sky and leaving a fine layer of dust on everything, this sand irritates the eyes and can pose a health risk for those with respiratory problems.

Police Response

The KNPA Tourist Police is responsible for patrolling major tourist areas in Seoul. Officers are generally fluent in English, Japanese, and Mandarin. The development of this unit is believed to have led to a decrease in crimes involving tourists and foreigners in recent years.

How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment

Police treat arrested or detained foreigners with respect. Upon arresting a foreigner, police will notify the KNPA Foreign Affairs Division, which will assume responsibility for the investigation. If the crime is a misdemeanor, the police will generally release the individual on his/her own recognizance after confirming the individual’s ties to Korea through verification of the subject’s address, telephone number, and employment.

Crime Victim Assistance

Foreign victims of a crime should call the police emergency telephone number, 112 for police assistance. Officers with English-speaking capability are always on duty.

Police/Security Agencies

Under the Ministry of Public Administration and Security, the KNPA is the national police force for South Korea. With 147,550 officers, KNPA is responsible for criminal investigations, public/cyber safety/security, traffic affairs, counterterrorism, riot control, dignitary protection, and various other law enforcement responsibilities.

The KNPA Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit is the premier civilian authority charged with counterterrorism operations, and is responsible for serving high-risk arrest warrants, hostage rescue, and other acceptable high threat missions. The KNPA SWAT teams are equipped with the latest equipment/ technologies and appear to be well organized and trained.

The KNPA has invested heavily in police education and training, to include an established Korean National Police University, Police Human Resources Development Institute, Central Police Academy, and Police Investigation Academy. Through these police-affiliated institutions, police officers are provided with knowledge and information related to investigations, counterterrorism, and enforcement of Korean laws.

The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office (SPO) consists of prosecutors and investigators. Unlike prosecutorial services in most developed countries, SPO possesses investigative authority usually exercised by police; SPO representatives can detain/arrest subjects and execute warrants. Issues occur between KNPA and SPO since they have overlapping jurisdictions related to investigative powers; there remain calls for to devolve some authority from SPO to KNPA.

The National Intelligence Service (NIS) is the domestic and foreign intelligence service, but it also has a quasi-law enforcement function in that it is responsible for counter-terrorism activities and security planning for major international events (through its Threat Information Integration Center).

The Presidential Security Service (PSS) is independent from other agencies, administered from the Blue House, and responsible for the protection of the president, the Blue House and other presidential sites, and of the U.S. President and Secretary of State when in South Korea. Of note, the Dignitary Close Protection unit of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency (SMPA) protects other U.S. cabinet officials.

Medical Emergencies

Foreigners may call an English-speaking doctor 24 hours a day for assistance with emergency medical information; within Seoul, dial 1339 (from a cell phone or outside Seoul, dial 02-1339).

Hospitals are generally equipped with state-of-the-art diagnostic and therapeutic equipment. High-quality general and specialty dental care is available in Seoul. Western-style medical facilities are available in the major urban areas of Seoul, Busan, Daegu, and a few other large cities. Not all doctors and staff in major urban areas are proficient in English; most clinics in rural areas do not have English-speaking doctors. Pharmacies are first-rate, and can provide most prescribed medications, except for psychotropic medicine, with a prescription.

South Korea has very good emergency response capability. Official fire department ambulances, reachable at 119, generally respond quickly and take patients to the nearest hospital. Ambulances are typically not staffed by fully-trained emergency medical technicians as in the U.S. Instead, ambulances usually have only basic supplies (like oxygen) and do not have sophisticated medical equipment.

Contact Information for Available Medical Services

For English-speaking healthcare providers, refer to the Embassy’s Medical Assistance webpage. This list is neither exhaustive nor indicative of official Embassy endorsement.

Available Air Ambulance Services

Contact the Seoul International SOS office by phone (02 3140-1700) or online in the event they require an emergency medical evacuation (medevac).

Insurance Guidance

Consider purchasing temporary medical insurance prior to departing the U.S. Some Korean hospitals accept some U.S. medical insurance, but only a limited number have direct-billing procedures worked out with U.S. insurers. Most require foreigners to pay for treatment, then seek reimbursement. Hospitals, including emergency rooms, also will not usually admit foreigners as patients without up-front payment.

Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance

Food sanitation in Korea is usually up to U.S. standards, but exercise caution when eating at small street vendors. Local city water is safe for drinking, though most locals drink bottled, boiled, or specially treated, purified water. When in doubt, bottled or otherwise packaged beverages are usually safe to drink.

The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for South Korea.

OSAC Country Council Information

The Regional Security Office (RSO) is in the process of re-launching the OSAC South Korea Country Council. Eligible private-sector security professionals interested in participating in the Country Council or connecting with the RSO should contact OSAC’s East Asia and Pacific Team.

U.S. Embassy Location and Contact Information

Embassy Address and Hours of Operation

U.S. Embassy Seoul, 188 Sejong-daero, Jongno-gu, Seoul

Hours: Monday-Friday, 0800 to 1700 (except U.S. and local holidays)

Embassy Contact Numbers

Embassy switchboard (24/7): 82-2-397-4114

Regional Security Office (RSO): 82-2-397-4161

American Citizen Services (ACS): 82-2-397-4040; fax: 82-2-397-4101

Visa inquiries: support-korea@ustraveldocs.com; 1600-8884 (Korea) or 1-703-520-2234 (U.S.)

Website: https://kr.usembassy.gov/

Nearby Posts: Consulate Busan

Embassy Guidance

U.S. citizens traveling to South Korea should register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to ensure they receive pertinent security updates and notices.

South Korea Country Information Sheet

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