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South Korea 2015 Crime and Safety Report

East Asia & Pacific > South Korea; East Asia & Pacific > South Korea > Seoul

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

Crime Rating: Low

Crime Threats

In 2013, at the direction of President Park Geun-hye, the Korean National Police (KNP) focused on a campaign to combat four “social evils”: sexual violence, domestic violence, school violence, and unsafe food. Police statistics have since reflected an increase in arrest rates, while overall crime statistics have remained largely stable since 2010, according to the KNP. Low-level street crimes do persist, and generally these crimes most frequently occur in major metropolitan areas. Street crimes involving foreigners usually consist of robberies and pickpocketing/purse slashing in tourist areas and crowded locations (markets, buses, subways, hotels, department stores). Such encounters are predominantly non-violent. 

There have been few incidents involving U.S. Embassy, U.S. military, or American expatriate victims. Most crimes reported by American expatriates involve pickpocketing in tourist areas and crowded markets or non-confrontational property theft.

Most crimes are non-violent in nature, although there are reports of more serious crimes, such as sexual assaults. Corresponding to combatting the four “social evils” campaign, South Korea made numerous amendments to outdated laws relating to sex crimes. With these sweeping changes, and a focus on enforcement, KNP crime statistics show a sharp increase in reported incidents in various categories of sex crimes, particularly higher numbers of reported crimes, apprehensions, and cases prosecuted. Specifically, reports of sexual assaults against foreigners have risen 40 percent since 2008. Reporting has shown that the majority of reported sexual assault cases involve the use and consumption of alcohol.

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

While crimes involving firearms are extremely rare due to stringent gun control laws, violent crimes sometimes occur, often involving the use of knives. 

Cyber

The Republic of Korea (“South Korea”) is a world leader in Internet connectivity, having the world’s fastest Internet connection speed and the highest internet penetration in per capita. Internet penetration rate is over 85 percent, and smart phone penetration rate is 80 percent. On an individual level, the threat of cybercrime is moderate but is steadily increasing; phishing schemes and theft of Personal Identifiable Information (PII) for criminal intent have increased as has defamation, which is considered a criminal offense. At the institutional and multinational company level, the 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.) 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.

Areas of Concern

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

Technically, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and South Korea are 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. Nonetheless, bilateral tensions remain moderately high and have escalated to limited military confrontations.

In the last decade, provocations from the North have included ballistic missile tests, nuclear tests, and attacks on South Korea-held territory. The unprovoked sinking of a South Korean naval vessel (the Cheonan) in March 2010 by the North and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island off the northwest coast of South Korea in November 2010 significantly increased tensions. The South Korean government stated that it would respond militarily to any further provocation. The sudden death of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011 led to widespread speculation about successor Kim Jong Un’s intentions. Hopes that Kim Jong Un might prove to be a more modern, less confrontational leader diminished after the North twice attempted to launch what it called a satellite into orbit in 2012, dramatically failing in April but succeeding in December. The North claims that such research is a peaceful use of space; the South maintains that the real intent is to advance missile technology and is in violation of UN sanctions and resolutions. 

The South maintains a high level of readiness to respond to military threats. Military training exercises are conducted throughout the year, including civil defense drills that are held quarterly. American citizens should stay informed through local media about military exercises and civil defense drills that may occur at short notice and for which the U.S. Embassy may not always be able to provide advance notification. Although the North typically responds to such activities with strong rhetoric, these situations rarely escalate beyond that.

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 dictates 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.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) 2014 International Transport Forum Road Safety Report, the rate of road fatalities per registered vehicle is nearly twice that of the U.S. The OECD 2014 report also shows that in 2012 the number of fatalities increased by 3.1 percent over 2011. Causes of accidents include frequent, abrupt, and un-signaled lane changes; running of red lights; and aggressive bus, taxi, and motorcycle delivery drivers. While illegal, it is common for drivers to watch live television on personal GPS devices via DMB (Digital Multimedia Broadcasting) technology, a contributing factor in many accidents.

In mid-2015, South Korea plans to implement a law requiring all passengers in vehicles to wear seatbelts. Until then, the law only requires seatbelt use by the driver and front seat passengers and all passengers when traveling on a highway. This change in law is expected to reduce fatalities from vehicular accidents. 

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. 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. 

Public Transportation Conditions 

South Korea has a modern, efficient public transportation system that is integrated with all modes of public transport: subway, train, and bus. In Seoul, 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 for the most part do not speak English. Public transportation systems are considered safe, although petty crimes of opportunity can occur at subway, train, and/or bus stations.

There are occasional reports of taxi scams where drivers refuse to use the meter and quote unreasonable fares or stop at disreputable gem/souvenir shops.

Aviation/Airport Conditions

Seoul Incheon International Airport (ICN) is one of the largest, busiest airports in the world, providing service to over 90 airlines. For several years, it has been rated the best airport worldwide by the Airports Council International. Seoul Incheon airport replaced Gimpo International Airport as the primary international airport in the early 2000s; Gimpo airport mostly services domestic destinations with some flights to Japan and China. 

Other Travel Conditions

On April 16, 2014, the South Korean ferry MV Sewol capsized while carrying 476 passengers en route from Incheon to Jeju Island. Nearly 300 passengers died, and the remaining passengers were rescued by fishing boats and other commercial vessels prior to the arrival of the Coast Guard or Navy. There has been widespread social and political criticism of lax safety standards and of the actions of the ferry captain, crew, and government in failing to rescue more people. The captain was sentenced to 36 years in prison for negligence and abandoning passengers, and several other crew members were charged and sentenced to serve time in prison.

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence

Political Violence Rating: Low

Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns

While Americans in South Korea are subject to the worldwide threat from international terrorism, no information suggests any specific terrorist threats directed at Americans or American interests. Although there has not been a terrorist incident against American interests in South Korea in recent history, the possibility of a ‘lone-wolf’ attack or transnational terrorist organizations attempting to operate cannot be ruled out.

Terrorism Rating: Low

Anti-American/Anti-Western Sentiment

South Korea is one of the most pro-American countries in the world. However, with approximately 30,000 U.S. troops stationed there, there have been periods with increased anti-American sentiment due to high-profile accidents/crimes committed by American service members. For example, in 2002 a U.S. military vehicle fatally injured two 14-year old South Korean girls, prompting large-scale protests against U.S. Forces Korea. In 2008, there were mass protests in Seoul against the importation of American beef; in 2011, there were mass protests in Seoul against the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. In recent years, there have been no accidents, crimes, and/or policies that have elevated anti-American sentiment.

Civil Unrest 

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

Post-specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards

South Korea has experienced earthquakes with minimal/no damage. On March 31, 2014, a 5.1 earthquake struck off the west coast, the fourth most powerful earthquake ever recorded on the Korean peninsula. 

The monsoon season (June-August) typically involved four-six weeks of heavy rain. Damages from flooding vary from year to year, but flooding is often a problem, especially in rural areas. 

Typhoons occasionally cause damage. In August 2012, typhoons caused a few deaths and moderate, isolated damage.

Critical Infrastructure Concerns 

Infrastructure is highly developed, due in part to the desire to continue economic growth. Because of this, there are safety issues that stem from little 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.

Economic Espionage/Intellectual Property Thefts

South Korea has made significant strides in terms of its protection of intellectual property rights in certain respects. It cooperates aggressively with U.S. law enforcement to pursue criminal investigations and to seize counterfeit goods, including luxury items. In 2013, Korean police working with U.S. federal agents seized over U.S.$66 million worth of counterfeit items, including clothing and leather goods. 

Industrial espionage, however, remains a high-profile concern. In October 2012, a U.S. grand jury indicted a South Korean firm, Kolon, for allegedly stealing U.S. 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 attempting to compromise a laptop inside the Seoul hotel room of a visiting Indonesian defense procurement delegation member. Open sources have also reported that South Korea may have attempted to compromise protected technology of U.S. F-15 fighters it purchased.

Privacy Concerns

According to the OpenNet Initiative (ONI), the government imposes more constraints on the freedom of online speech than most other democratic countries. In November 2010, ONI conducted testing on KT Corporation, the largest South Korean Internet Service Providers, and found a select number of blocked websites, the majority focused on issues related to North Korea, dating, pornography, and gambling. Many of the sites are still blocked. 

There have also been several high-profile incidents of privacy/data leaks. In January 2014, for example, 20 million citizens had personal information stolen by a worker at the Korea Credit Bureau, leading to a massive effort by bank customers to replace compromised credit cards. In July 2011, personal data of over 35 million SK Communications users were compromised. In July 2012, 8.7 million KT Mobile users also had their private information compromised. 

Drug-related Crimes

Narcotics production/abuse is not 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.

Kidnapping Threat

Kidnappings are rare, but they do occur. KNP crime statistics for 2012 reflected a total of 403 indicted kidnapping cases. Some of the more high-profile cases include a Korean-American dual citizen in late 2011 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 KNP Commissioner General.

Police Response

In 2013, the KNP created a new unit called the “tourist police” that is responsible for patrolling major tourist areas in Seoul and whose officers are fluent in English, Japanese, and Mandarin. Because of this, many street crimes involving tourists and foreigners have decreased in recent years.

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 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

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

Police/Security Agencies 

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/cyber safety/security, 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 KNP 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-affiliated institutions, 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. Tensions between KNP and SPO flared up in late 2012 in the wake of scandals that led to the resignation of the Prosecutor General; in August 2014, KNP arrested the Chief of the Jeju District Prosecutors’ Office. 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, of the Blue House and other presidential sites, and of the U.S. president and secretary of state. Of note, other U.S. cabinet-qualify are protected by the Dignitary Protection Division of the KNP.

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 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 not staffed by fully-trained and equipped emergency medical technicians akin to the U.S. Ambulances usually have only basic supplies like oxygen; they do not have sophisticated medical equipment. Nonetheless, official fire department ambulances (dial 119) respond quickly and take patients to the nearest hospital. 

Contact Information for Recommended Hospitals/Clinics

The U.S. Embassy in Seoul maintains a list of English-speaking health care providers in various cities. While the list is not intended to be exhaustive nor indicative of any official Embassy endorsement, it can be viewed at: http://seoul.usembassy.gov/acs_health.html. 

Recommended Air Ambulance Services

U.S. citizens can call the Seoul “International SOS” office at (02) 3140-1700 in the event emergency medical evacuation is required. Information can be obtained at the website: https://www.internationalsos.com/en/. 

Visitors may also contact the U.S. Embassy in Seoul to request information about other air ambulance/medevac services options.

Recommended Insurance Posture

Travelers should consider obtaining temporary medical insurance prior to departing the United States. Some Korean hospitals accept some 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, 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).

CDC Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance 

Food sanitation in Korea 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 bottled or otherwise packaged are usually safe to drink.

For additional information on vaccines and health guidance, please visit the CDC at: http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/traveler/none/south-korea?s_cid=ncezid-dgmq-travel-single-001.

Tips on How to Avoid Becoming a Victim

Situational Awareness Best Practices 

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

Visitors who cannot speak/read Korean should ask their hotel for language cards with the names and contact information for their hotel, destinations, etc.

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. Visitors should also avoid demonstrations if possible (foreigners may not participate in political demonstrations in Korea because doing so would violate one’s ROK Visa terms), avoid confronting demonstrators, and exercise caution if within the vicinity of protests or rallies.

U.S. Embassy Location and Contact Information 

Embassy Address and Hours of Operation 

U.S. Embassy of South Korea
188 Sejong-daero, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Monday-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
After-Hours Emergencies for American citizens: 
Tel: 82-2-397-4114
DSN: 721-4114
General American Citizen Services inquiries 
Email: seoulinfoacs@state.gov
Tel: 82-2-397-4040; Fax: 82-2-397-4101
DSN Fax: 721-4101; DSN 721-4040
Visa inquiries (all public inquiries)
Email: support-korea@ustraveldocs.com
Tel: 1600-8884 (within Korea) or 1-703-520-2234 (United States)
Foreign Commercial Service (FCS)
Email: office.seoul@trade.gov 
Tel: 82-2-397-4535
Fax: 82-2-739-1628
Medical Unit
Tel: 82-2-397-4140 
Fax: 82-2-397-4566
Political Section
Tel: 82-2-397-4210
Fax: 82-2-733-4791
Economic Section
Tel: 82-2-397-4400
Fax: 82-2-722-1429
Website: http://seoul.usembassy.gov/

Nearby Posts

Consulate Busan: http://busan.usconsulate.gov/

Embassy Guidance

American visitors should register through the Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). 

OSAC Country Council Information

For any inquiries on the South Korea Country Council, please contact Regional Security Officer Stephen M. Sexton at: sextonsm@state.gov or Tel: 82-2397-4161. To reach OSAC’s East Asia Pacific team, please email OSACEAP@state.gov.