According to the current U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory at the date of this report’s publication, South Korea has been assessed as Level 1: Exercise normal precautions.
Overall Crime and Safety Situation
U.S. Embassy 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 service provided.
The U.S. Department of State has assessed Seoul and Busan as being LOW-threat locations for crime directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests.
Please review OSAC’s South Korea-specific 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 rates throughout the Republic of Korea (“South Korea”) are generally considered low by U.S. standards, and the country remains a very safe destination for most visitors. The most common crimes include pickpocketing, purse snatching, and thefts from hotel rooms or homes, occurring more frequently in large public spaces, tourist areas, and crowded markets.
There have been few incidents involving U.S. government, military, or private citizen victims. In most instances, criminal perpetrators are usually deterred by the risk of confrontation and engage principally in crimes of stealth. Burglaries of occupied residences are relatively rare. Most crimes reported by American expatriates involve pickpocketing in tourist areas and crowded markets or non-confrontational property theft. Itaewon, Sinchon, Myeongdong, Gangnam, and Hongdae are well-known entertainment and shopping districts in which crowds, alcohol, and a higher prevalence of drug activity present a relatively higher risk of crime. For more information, please review OSAC’s Report “Shaken: The Don’ts of Alcohol Abroad.”
Most crimes are non-violent in nature, although there are reports of more serious crimes, such as sexual assaults and murders. Corresponding to a campaign against the four “social evils,” South Korea made numerous amendments to outdated laws relating to sex crimes. With these sweeping changes, and a focus on enforcement, Korean National Police Agency (KNPA) crime statistics show a sharp increase in reported incidents in various categories of sex crimes. Reports of sexual assaults against foreigners continue to occur. Reporting has shown that the majority of reported sexual assault cases involve alcohol and some level of familiarity between the victim and the attacker. South Korea has specialized police and hospital units to assist victims. Women traveling alone should review the State Department’s Travel Tips for Women Travelers.
Crimes involving firearms are extremely rare due to stringent gun control laws. Violent crimes, which occur occasionally, are more likely to involve the use of knives.
South Korea is a world leader in internet connectivity. By some accounts, the country is home to the world’s fastest internet connection speed and the highest rate of activity online. Internet penetration 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. Spearphishing schemes and the theft of Personal Identifiable Information (PII) for criminal intent appear to have increased. Reports of defamation, which is considered a criminal offense, have also risen.
At the institutional and multinational company level, South Korea has experienced an increased number of intrusions, Distribution Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, and the use of malicious software to disrupt networks. Korean financial institutions have also been targeted by hackers, who have stolen Korean Identification Numbers (KID) and other PII with financial motives. (KID is similar to an American social security number and used in Korea as a primary identity document for personal and financial transactions.) Official U.S. government travelers are advised not to leave unsecured personal electronics containing sensitive information on them in hotel rooms.
The use of malicious software to disrupt or shut down government, public, and private networks continues to negatively impact the economy and jeopardize the security of critical infrastructure.
In December 2014, malicious software was used to gain access to the Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Company.
Other Areas of Concern
An armistice agreement, monitored by the UN, has maintained general peace on the Korean peninsula since 1953. Tensions occasionally flare up due to provocations from North Korea, including ballistic missile and nuclear tests and limited armed incursions into ROK-held territory. Some provocations have escalated into geographically limited skirmishes. South Korea routinely conducts military training exercises and civil defense drills. North Korea often issues strongly-worded and threatening messages, frequently in connection with these exercises. American citizens should 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.
For more information, please review OSAC’s Report, “Security in Transit: Airplanes, Public Transport, and Overnights.”
Road Safety and Road Conditions
Roads are generally well paved and have traffic signals. Seasonal heavy rains can cause isolated sections of roads to become temporarily blocked or washed out. South Korea’s mountainous topography can result in unusual road networks and interchanges in some areas. Foreigners who cannot read Korean report that road signs are difficult to use for navigating.
Drivers are aggressive, especially in large cities. Pedestrians should be aware that vehicles frequently do not yield to pedestrians in marked crosswalks.
South Korea's traffic-related deaths have been on a steady decline but still remain among the highest for Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. Based on OECD criteria, the country's death rates from traffic accidents per 100,000 inhabitants reached 10 in 2016.
Seatbelt use in front seats has been compulsory since 1990 on all roads. The use of rear seatbelts on motorways was made compulsory until 2008, but the use of rear seatbelts is not compulsory on inner-city or rural roads.
It is very common to find a “black box” installed in vehicles. Black boxes are small surveillance cameras that record everything happening around a vehicle. The video footage taken from these black boxes is used by police for investigations, evidence in court, and by insurance companies to catch/prevent insurance fraud.
All riders of motorized two-wheel vehicles are required to wear helmets. The rate of usage varies between urban and rural environments. There is no mandatory helmet use law for cyclists, though the use of a protective helmet is strongly advised.
For more information on self-driving, please review OSAC’s Report “Driving Overseas: Best Practices.”
Public Transportation Conditions
South Korea has a modern, efficient public transportation system that is integrated with all modes of public transportation to include subway, train, and bus. The majority of people utilize the public transportation system instead of traveling on the congested roadways. Reliability and ease of use of this sprawling, vast network affords people the opportunity to travel between smaller cities and towns and urban areas. Trains, buses, and subways are clean and punctual, and most subway/train stations have signs in Korean and English. Timetable and bus stop names are typically in Korean, and bus drivers generally do not speak English. Public transportation systems are considered safe, although petty crimes of opportunity can occur at subway, train, and bus stations.
There are occasional reports of taxi scams where drivers refuse to use the meter and quote unreasonable fares. There are also isolated reports of drivers stopping at disreputable gem/souvenir shops.
Other Travel Conditions
In response to the Sewol Ferry disaster in April 2014, the South Korean government has strengthened maritime safety by amending the maritime laws related to the safety of passenger ships. The disaster has had a profound impact on Korean society, causing the government to be more proactive in instituting measures to prevent and/or reduce maritime accidents.
The U.S. Department of State has assessed Seoul and Busan as being LOW-threat location for terrorist activity directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests.
Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns
While Americans are subject to the worldwide threat of international terrorism, there is no information to suggest any specific terrorist threats directed at Americans or American interests in South Korea. However, the possibility of a “lone-wolf” or transnational terrorist organizations attempting an attack cannot be ruled out.
As host to approximately 28,500 U.S. troops, there have been periods of increased anti-American sentiment due to high-profile accidents and crimes involving American service members.
For example, in 2011, there were mass protests in Seoul against the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.
The deployment of the Thermal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system by the U.S. government on Korea’s sovereign territory has seen an increase in anti-American protests and demonstrations. Generally, however, these type of events are peaceful in nature and remain relatively modest in size.
Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence
The U.S. Department of State has assessed Seoul and Busan as being MEDIUM-threat locations for political violence directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests.
Demonstrations and rallies are common in South Korea, particularly near the U.S. Embassy, Seoul City Hall, and areas surrounding military installations. Travelers should avoid areas where demonstrations are taking place and exercise caution in the vicinity of any large gatherings, protests, or rallies. Even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and escalate into violence. Visitors should not confront demonstrators. Foreigners may not participate in political demonstrations in Korea because doing so would violate the terms of one’s ROK visa.
South Korea has experienced earthquakes, many of which result in little/no damage.
The most recent earthquake, in November 2017, in Buk-gu, Pohang, North Gyeongsang and registered a 5.4.
Heavy rains and flooding may occur during the June-August monsoon season or the May-November typhoon season. Heavy rain can result in flooding, property damage, and injury or death, especially in rural areas.
The U.S. Embassy in Seoul maintains a webpage with local information about emergency preparedness. Stay informed by bookmarking Disaster Preparedness page and following local current events during your time in Korea.
Critical Infrastructure Concerns
South Korean infrastructure is generally highly developed, due in part to the desire to continue economic growth. Because of this, there are safety issues that stem from limited enforcement of regulations, minimal consequences for violators, and a tendency to value economic progress over safety. As a result 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, and there is an emphasis on the need for stricter enforcement of safety standards.
South Korea has made significant strides in terms of its protection of intellectual property rights. It cooperates with U.S. law enforcement to aggressively pursue criminal investigations and to seize counterfeit goods, including luxury items.
Industrial espionage, however, remains a high-profile concern.
According to the OpenNet Initiative (ONI), the government imposes more constraints on the freedom of online speech than most other democratic countries. The majority of blocked websites focus on issues related to North Korea, dating, pornography, and gambling; many of the sites have been blocked since 2010.
There have also been several high-profile incidents of data leaks and breaches of privacy. \
Personal Identity Concerns
Although very uncommon, there have been isolated reports of racial discrimination against American citizens attending schools in South Korea.
Visitors who cannot speak or read Korean should ask their hotel for language cards with the names and contact information for their hotel, major landmarks, airport, destinations, etc.
The production/abuse of narcotics does not appear to be a major problem. However, reports indicate that an undetermined quantity of narcotics is smuggled through South Korea to Japan and other countries. In response, the government has taken significant steps to counter drug transshipment. Reporting reflects that in Seoul, most drug-related offenses occur in the Gangnam and Yongsan Districts, involving drugs usually distributed through night clubs.
The Korean National Police (KNP) have a tourist police unit, whose officers are fluent in English, Japanese, and Mandarin and who are responsible for patrolling major tourist areas in Seoul. Because of this, many street crimes involving tourists and foreigners appear to have decreased in recent years.
How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment
Foreigners who are arrested or detained by police are typically treated with respect. Upon arresting a foreigner, police will notify the KNP 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
For emergency assistance or to report any significant security incidents, dial 112. Officers with English-speaking capability are on duty 24-hours a day, 365 days a year.
Under the Ministry of Public Administration and Security, the Korean National Police Agency (KNP) is the national police force for South Korea. With over 115,000 police officers, the KNP is responsible for criminal investigations, public safety, cybersecurity, traffic affairs, counterterrorism, riot control, dignitary protection, and various other initiatives. The KNP Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit is the premier civilian authority charged with counterterrorism operations and responsible for serving high-risk arrest warrants, hostage rescue, and other acceptable high threat missions. The SWAT teams are well-equipped with the latest equipment/technologies and appear to be well-organized and trained. The KNP has also invested heavily in police education and training to include having an established Korean National Police University, Police Training Institute, Central Police Academy, and Police Investigation Academy. Through these, police officers are provided with knowledge/information related to investigations, counterterrorism, and enforcement of Korean laws.
The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office (SPO) consists of both prosecutors and investigators, and unlike prosecutorial services in most developed countries, SPO possesses much investigative authority usually exercised by police. SPO representatives can detain/arrest subjects and execute warrants. The underlying issue between KNP and SPO is that they have overlapping jurisdictions—investigative powers—and there remain calls for the government to devolve some authority from SPO to KNP.
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, as well as the U.S. president and secretary of state when they visit. Of note, other U.S. cabinet officials are protected by the Dignitary Close Protection unit of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency (SMPA).
Dial 119 in the event of a medical emergency. English speaking doctors are available 24 hours a day to assist foreigners and provide them with relevant medical information
Hospitals are generally well-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 most prescribed medications, except for psychotropic medicine, can be obtained with a prescription.
South Korea has very good emergency response capability, but ambulances are generally not staffed by fully-trained and equipped emergency medical technicians as they might be in the U.S. Ambulances usually have only basic supplies like oxygen; they do not have sophisticated medical equipment. Nevertheless, official fire department ambulances typically respond quickly and take patients to the nearest hospital.
Contact Information for Available Medical Services
For medical assistance, please refer to the Embassy’s Medical Assistance webpage.
Available Air Ambulance Services
U.S. citizens can reach the International SOS office at (02) 3140-1700 or https://www.internationalsos.com/en/. Visitors may also contact the U.S. Embassy in Seoul to request information about other air ambulance or medevac services options.
Travelers should consider obtaining temporary medical insurance prior to departing the U.S. Some Korean hospitals may accept certain American medical insurance, but only a limited number have direct-billing procedures worked out with American insurers. Most require foreigners to pay for treatment then seek reimbursement through their insurance company. Hospitals, including emergency rooms, typically will not admit foreigners as patients without payment up front (meaning, either one must have insurance that the hospital will accept or one would likely be required to make a deposit or put up a guarantee in order to be admitted).
Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance
Food sanitation is usually up to U.S. standards; travelers should exercise caution when eating food from small street vendors. Local city water is considered safe for drinking, though most local people drink bottled, boiled, or specially-treated, purified water. When in doubt, beverages that are bottled or otherwise packaged are usually safe to drink.
South Korea experienced an outbreak of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) from May-July 2015. The index case (the first patient) was diagnosed with MERS shortly after he returned from the Middle East. The outbreak of MERS resulted in the temporary closure of South Korean schools, the sanitizing of public transportation, and a decrease in the volume of foreign tourists before it was declared over in July 2015. For information, please review OSAC’s Report MERS in South Korea.
The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for South Korea.
OSAC Country Council Information
OSAC is in the process of restarting the Seoul Country Council. Interested private-sector security managers should contact OSAC’s East Asia and the Pacific team with any questions.
U.S. Embassy Location and Contact Information
Embassy Address and Hours of Operation
Embassy of the United States, Republic of Korea
188 Sejong-daero, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Hours: Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Embassy Contact Numbers
Embassy switchboard: 82-2-397-4114
Duty officer (cell): 82-11-9101-9057
Consulate Busan: http://busan.usconsulate.gov/
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.
Follow the U.S. Embassy Seoul's "Americans in Korea" Facebook page
South Korea Country Information Sheet