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South Korea 2013 Crime and Safety Report

East Asia & Pacific > South Korea > Seoul

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

While infrequent by U.S. standards, street crimes do occur. With some variation, police statistics have remained largely stable the past few years, and while a small increase in reports of certain violent crimes has been reported, there have been few incidents involving Embassy, U.S. military, or expatriate victims. There were a handful of high-profile violent and sexual crimes, including against minors, that garnered significant media attention in 2012, but such reports are very rare. 

Most reported crimes involve pickpocketing in tourist areas and crowded markets, and most crimes are non-violent. The crimes that occur most frequently (e.g., pickpocketing, purse snatching, assault, and hotel room and residential crime) occur more often in major metropolitan areas than elsewhere in the Republic of Korea (ROK). Such encounters are predominantly non-violent. While violent crimes involving firearms are extremely rare due to stringent gun control laws, violent crimes sometimes occur, often involving the use of knives. 

Itaewon, Shinchon, Myeongdong, and Hongdae are well-known entertainment and shopping districts in Seoul in which crowds, alcohol, and a higher prevalence of drug activity also present a higher risk for crime. 

Overall Road Safety Situation 

Korea's roads are generally well paved, and traffic signals operate normally. Nonetheless, traffic fatalities per driver are almost two times greater than in the U.S. Drivers are aggressive, especially in Seoul and other cities. Causes of accidents include: frequent, abrupt, unsignaled lane changes, running of red lights, and aggressive bus and taxi drivers. Pedestrians should be aware that vehicles frequently do not yield to pedestrians in marked crosswalks. Seasonal heavy rains can cause isolated sections of road to become temporarily blocked or washed out. Korea’s mountainous topography dictates unusual road networks and interchanges in some areas, and many foreigners who cannot read Korean well report finding Korean road signs difficult to navigate.

Taxis are generally safe, but there are occasional reports of crimes involving taxi drivers (e.g., fare scams, stolen cell phones, and in 2012, after consuming too much alcohol, two U.S. citizens reported being sexually assaulted by taxi drivers). 

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence

The ROK is a modern democracy with active public participation. Technically, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (also known as North Korea or the DPRK) and the ROK are still in a state of war. There is peace on the Korean peninsula because of the armistice agreement that has endured since 1953; and in the past two decades, the number and type of political, economic, and social interactions between the Koreas have increased. Nonetheless, tensions remain moderately high and have flared into limited military confrontations.

In the last decade, provocations from the North have included ballistic missile tests, nuclear warhead tests, and limited armed incursions into ROK-held territory. In recent years, some of these provocations have escalated into skirmishes taking place primarily near five geographically isolated islands off the northwest coast of the ROK. The unprovoked sinking of a ROK naval vessel (the Cheonan) by the DPRK in March 2010 and the DPRK artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong island off the northwest coast of the Republic of Korea in November 2010 significantly increased tensions. The ROK stated that it would respond militarily to any further provocation. The sudden death of Kim Jong Il in December 2011 led to widespread speculation about his successor Kim Jong Un’s intentions. Hopes that he might prove to be a more modern and less confrontational leader diminished after North Korea tried twice to launch what it called a satellite into orbit in 2012, failing spectacularly in April and then succeeding in December. North Korea claims that such research is peaceful use of space; the ROK maintains that the real intent is to advance missile technology in violation of U.N. sanctions/resolutions. 

The ROK maintains a high level of readiness to respond to military threats. Military training exercises, including civil defense drills that are normally held at least quarterly, are routinely conducted. Although the DPRK typically responds to such activities with strong rhetoric, these situations rarely escalate beyond that.

Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns

While Americans are subject to the worldwide threat from international terrorism, no information suggests any specific terrorist threats directed at Americans or U.S. interests in the ROK. While there has not been a terrorist incident against U.S. interests in South Korea, the possibility of al-Qai’da or other transnational terrorist organizations attempting to operate there cannot be ruled out. 

Civil Unrest 

Political demonstrations are extremely common. In recent years, there has been a decrease in violence associated with political demonstrations, but even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational quickly. In most cases, rallies and demonstrations are so frequent and so quickly arranged that the U.S. Embassy in Seoul will not send out messages to U.S. citizens regarding them.

Religious or Ethnic Violence 

There is little to no threat of religious or ethnic violence in the ROK. Foreign residents or visitors, especially if they are darker-skinned, may find themselves the subject of stares in public places, but for the most part Koreans are notably kind and helpful to foreigners. As much as 10 percent of marriages involve a foreign-born spouse; often Southeast Asian women marry Korean men from rural areas, so there is increasing focus in Korea on what it means to be a multi-cultural society.

Post-specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards 

The ROK has only experienced minor earthquakes with minimal or no damage in recent history. 

The monsoon season usually runs from June-August, with four to six weeks of heaviest rain most typical. Damages from flooding vary from year to year, but flooding is often a problem, especially in rural areas. 

Typhoons also occasionally cause damage on the peninsula; in August, 2012 typhoons caused a handful of deaths and moderate damage on two occasions.

Industrial and Transportation Accidents 

Industrial accidents with resulting injuries are common in the ROK, especially in its heavy industries and shipyards. Poor safety regulations and inadequate evacuation plans are often to blame for the large number of injuries and fatalities. In November 2012, counterfeit certificates of authenticity were discovered for non-core parts used in two reactors at the Yeonggwang nuclear facility; and later microscopic cracks were discovered in control rod tunnels at the same facility. The Korean government responded aggressively in both instances, and the Embassy and outside observers maintain confidence in the ROK’s safety and regulatory regimes.

Economic Espionage/Intellectual Property Thefts

The ROK has made great strides in terms of its protection of intellectual property rights, and it cooperates aggressively with U.S. law enforcement to pursue criminal investigations and seize counterfeit goods, including luxury items such as handbags. 

But, industrial espionage remains a high-profile concern. In October, 2012 a U.S. grand jury indicted a South Korean firm, Kolon, for allegedly stealing DuPont corporate secrets so that it could introduce its own version of Kevlar material. In early 2011 agents from the South Korean National Intelligence Service were widely reported to have been caught in the act of attempting to compromise a laptop inside the hotel room in Seoul of a visiting Indonesian trade delegation member. Open sources have also reported that South Korea may have attempted to compromise protected technology within U.S. F-15 fighters it purchased.

Privacy Concerns

The ROK enjoys the world’s fastest average Internet speed and has among the highest percentages of population with access to broadband. But, according to the OpenNet Initiative (ONI), the ROK imposes more constraints on the freedom of online speech than most other democratic countries; and a wide range of information, from election-related discourse to discussion about North Korea, is subject to central government filtering and censorship. In November 2010, ONI conducted testing on KT Corporation, the largest South Korean ISP, and found a select number of blocked websites; the majority focused on issues related to North Korea, but other sites focused on dating, pornography, and gambling. 

There have also been widespread reports of large-scale data breaches of South Korean firms; in July 2011, for example, personal data of over 35 million SK Communications users was reportedly compromised, and in July 2012, 8.7 million KT Mobile users had private information compromised. 

Official U.S. government travelers are advised not to leave personal electronic items, laptops, etc. that have sensitive information on them unsecured in hotel rooms.

Regional Travel Concerns and Restricted Travel Areas/Zones

There are no areas within the ROK that are off-limits for travel by official Americans. US Forces Korea maintains a list of specific commercial establishments that are off-limits to its service members because of concerns of prostitution, drug activity, or violence; the lists are updated monthly and can be viewed at: (http://www.usfk.mil/usfk/off-limits).

Drug-related Crimes 

Narcotics production or abuse is not a major problem in the ROK. However, continuing reports indicate that an undetermined quantity of narcotics is smuggled through South Korea en route to the U.S. and other countries. In response, the government has taken significant steps to thwart the transshipment of drugs. There have also been increasing reports of the use of synthetic, manufactured drugs with marijuana-like effects (often called “spice”), including by U.S. service members. Korean National Police cooperate aggressively with USFK law enforcement and the Embassy’s DEA Attaché Office, regarding targeting drug importation by U.S. service members or former service members.

Kidnapping Threats

Kidnappings are rare, but they do occur. Government statistics indicate an average of 3-5 reported kidnappings annually. In late 2011, a Korean-American dual citizen was kidnapped and reportedly murdered by a Korean relative because of an inheritance dispute. In April 2012, a Chinese national of Korean ethnicity kidnapped and murdered a woman in Suwon; the case was mishandled by police, became a national scandal, and led to the resignation of the Korean National Police Commissioner General.

Police Response

How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment 

Foreigners who are arrested or detained by police are treated with respect. Upon arresting a foreigner, police will notify the Korean National Police (KNP) Foreign Affairs Division (FAD), 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. Arrested American citizens should inform the Embassy’s American Citizen Services (ACS) section.

Where to Turn to for Assistance if you Become a Victim of Crime

Foreigners should call the police emergency telephone number 112 if they are the victim of a crime or need police assistance. English-speaking officers are on duty 24-hours a day, 365 days a year. 

Various Police/Security Agencies 

The Korean National Police (KNP) is professional, well-trained and equipped, and present throughout the country. They possess the latest technology and employ specialists in all areas found in other modern police forces, including cyber-police, SWAT, riot control, EOD/EDD, dignitary protection, etc. 

The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office (SPO) consists of both prosecutors and investigators and unlike prosecutorial services in most developed countries, the SPO also possesses much investigative authority usually maintained exclusively by police. SPO representatives can also detain and arrest subjects, execute warrants, etc. Tensions between KNP and SPO flared up in late 2012 in the wake of a series of scandals that led to the resignation of the Prosecutor General; and there remain calls for the new government of President Park Geun-hye to devolve some investigative authority from SPO to KNP. 

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

The Presidential Security Service (PSS) is independent, is administered from the Blue House, and is responsible for the protection of the president, of the Blue House, of other presidential sites, and of the U.S. president and secretary of state when either visits. (Other U.S. Cabinet-level visiting dignitaries who are afforded protection details are protected by the Dignitary Protection Division of the KNP.)

Medical Emergencies

Hospitals in the ROK 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. However, not all doctors and staff in these major urban areas are proficient in English; and most clinics in rural areas do not have English-speaking doctors. Pharmacies are first-rate, and most prescribed medications, except psychotropic medications, can be obtained with a prescription. South Korea has very good emergency response capability, but Korean ambulances are not staffed by fully-trained and equipped emergency medical technicians akin to U.S. EMTs (and ambulances usually have only basic supplies like oxygen; they do not have sophisticated medical equipment). Nonetheless, ambulances operated by the fire department (dial 119) will respond very quickly and take patients to the nearest hospital. 

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 will require foreigners to pay for treatment then seek reimbursement through the insurance company. Korean hospitals, including emergency rooms, also will not usually 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).

Contact Information for Recommended Local Hospitals and Clinics

The U.S. Embassy in Seoul maintains a list of English-speaking health care providers (i.e., hospitals in various cities with English-speaking staff). While the list is not intended to be exhaustive nor indicative of any official Embassy endorsement, it can be consulted by any prospective travelers via: http://seoul.usembassy.gov/acs_health.html. Foreigners may also call and speak with 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).

Recommended Air Ambulance Services

American citizens can call the Seoul "International SOS" office at 3140-1700 in the event emergency medical evacuation is required. Travelers should consider obtaining temporary medical insurance prior to departing the U.S. Information on purchasing medical insurance and evacuation assistance can be obtained at: http://www.internationalsos.com/en. The U.S. Embassy in Seoul also maintains a list of air ambulance/medevac services options that may be consulted: http://seoul.usembassy.gov/acs_health.html 

CDC Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance

Food sanitation is usually up to U.S. standards, but caution should be taken when eating at 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 either bottled or otherwise packaged are usually safe to drink.

For health guidance, please visit the CDC at: http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/south-korea.htm 

Tips on How to Avoid Becoming a Victim

Areas to be Avoided and Best Security Practices

Itaewon, Shinchon, Myeongdong, and Hongdae are well known entertainment and shopping districts in Seoul in which crowds, alcohol, and a higher prevalence of drug activity also present a higher risk for crime. Visitors do not need to avoid these areas but should use caution in all crowded entertainment, nightlife, and shopping districts.

The common sense security precautions a person would take in any large U.S. city are appropriate throughout the ROK. Visitors should use caution in all crowded entertainment, nightlife, and shopping districts throughout Korea. American citizens should remain alert to their surroundings and avoid carrying anything that is not needed while traveling. Avoid carrying valuables in backpacks, which are more easily targeted by pickpockets. 

Visitors should register with American Citizen Services, and if they cannot speak or read Korean, ask their hotel for language cards with the names and contact information for your hotel, destinations, etc. 

Americans can reduce personal risk by avoiding political demonstrations and by avoiding confrontations with protestors (foreigners may not participate in political demonstrations in Korea since doing so would violate one’s visa terms). Exercise caution if within their vicinity.

U.S. citizens should stay informed through local media about upcoming military exercises and civil defense drills that sometimes occur at short notice and for which the Embassy may not be able to provide advance notification.

U.S. Embassy/Consulate Location and Contact Information 

Embassy/Consulate Address and Hours of Operation 

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

ACS Hours of Operation by appointment: 8:45 - 11:15 a.m. Monday through Friday, 1:00 - 3:00 p.m. Monday to Friday except Wednesday.

Embassy/Consulate Contact Numbers

Regional Security Office (RSO): Tel: 82-2-397-4161;
Fax: 82-2-397-4382; E-mail: DS_RSOSeoul@state.gov

Consular Section:
E-mail (all public inquiries): SeoulInfo@state.gov; Fax: 82-2-397-4080; DSN Fax: 721-4080
U.S. Passport inquiries only: 82-2-397-4040; DSN: 721-4040
All other American citizen services inquiries: 82-2-397-4114; DSN 721-4114
All Visa inquiries: 82-2-397-4373
Telephone inquiry hours: 08:30-16:30 Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday; 08:30-16:00 Wednesday
For American citizens with after-hours emergencies, please call 82-2-397-4114. If you have access to DSN, please call 721-4114.

Foreign Commercial Services (FCS):
Tel: 82-2-397-4535; Fax: 82-2-739-1628;
E-mail: Seoul.office.box@mail.doc.gov

Embassy Switchboard: 82-2-397-4114

Duty Officer: Cell phone: 82-11-9101-9057

Embassy Medical Unit: 82-2-397-4140; Fax: 82-2-397-4566

Political Section: 82-2-397-4210; Fax: 82-2-733-4791

Economic Section: 82-2-397-4400; Fax: 82-2-722-1429

OSAC Country Council Information

Brendan M. Murray, RSO, U.S. Embassy Seoul, Tel: 82-2397-4161, Fax 82-2-397-4382, E-mail: murraybm@state.gov.

American Chamber of Commerce in Korea, Tel: 82-2-564-2040, Fax: 82-2-564-2050