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 services 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 webpage proprietary analytic reports, Consular Messages, and contact information.
The Republic of Korea (South Korea) remains a safe destination for most travelers. The most common crimes reported by Americans involve non-confrontational property theft (pick-pocketing, purse snatching, thefts from hotel rooms/homes) and occur more frequently in major metropolitan areas, at tourist attractions, and in crowded venues. U.S. citizens should avoid carrying valuables in backpacks, which are more easily targeted by pickpockets.
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 higher risk of crime. In most instances, criminals are usually deterred by the risk of confrontation and engage principally in crimes of stealth. Visitors should use caution in all crowded entertainment, nightlife, and shopping districts (such as Itaewon, Sinchon, Myeongdong, Gangnam, and Hongdae in Seoul).
Though less common, there have also been reports of more serious crimes, like sexual assault. Corresponding to combatting the four “social evils” campaign, South Korea made numerous amendments to outdated laws related to sex crimes. With these sweeping changes and a focus on enforcement, Korean National Police (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. Reports of sexual assaults against foreigners continue to occur. Reporting has shown that the majority of reported sexual assault cases involve alcohol, and, in many instances, the victim may have known the attacker.
Other crimes (burglary of occupied residences, murder) are relatively rare. While crimes involving firearms are very uncommon due to stringent gun control laws, violent crimes do occur, and sometimes involve the use of knives.
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 at over 85%. The smart phone penetration rate is around 80%. 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 a criminal offense in South Korea.
At the institutional and multinational company level, South Korea has experienced an increased number of intrusions, Distribution Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, and 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. 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 and Nuclear Power Company.
Other Areas of Concern
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and South Korea remain in a state of war. There is peace on the Korean peninsula because of an armistice agreement from 1953; in the past two decades, the number and type of political, economic, and social interactions between the Koreas have increased. Nevertheless, 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 device tests, and attacks on South Korea-held territory.
- The unprovoked sinking of a South Korean naval vessel (Cheonan) by the North in March 2010 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. North Korea claims that such research is a peaceful use of space, while South Korea maintains that the real intent is to advance missile technology and is, therefore, in violation of UN sanctions and resolutions. Some actions taken by the North in 2016 include:
- On October 19, North Korea conducted a Musudan missile test that exploded shortly after lift-off. This was the eighth attempt to launch a Musudan missile.
- On October 14, North Korea conducted a failed test of what was believed to be a Musudan missile. The missile exploded shortly after take-off.
- On September 9, North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test. The seismic activity registered a magnitude of 5.0 on the Richter scale.
- On September 5, North Korea launched three ballistic missiles simultaneously, all of which traveled approximately 1,000 kilometers.
- On August 24, North Korea tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile, KN-11, which traveled approximately 500 kilometers before splashing in the ocean. The test was lauded as a success.
- On August 3, North Korea launched a Nodong medium-range ballistic missile, which fell into Japan’s economic exclusion zone, about 200 kilometers off of Japan’s coastline.
- On June 21, North Korea fired two Musudan missiles, with one being a partial success by flying approximately 400 kilometers.
- On May 30, North Korea launched a Musudan missile with unfavorable results.
- On April 28, North Korea unsuccessfully launched two Musudan missiles.
- On April 23, North Korea launched a KN-11 ballistic missile from a submarine. The missile flew approximately 30 kilometers and exploded.
- On April 15, North Korea unsuccessfully launched a Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile. The UN Security Council immediately condemned the launch and called it a clear violation of existing resolutions.
- On February 7, North Korea test-fired an Unha-3 satellite-launch rocket into space. The UN Security Council unanimously condemned the exercise, as it was seen as a part of a program to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
- On January 6, North Korea allegedly detonated a small nuclear device underground that created a 5.1 seismic event. The UN Security Council strongly condemned the test and agreed to prepare further unspecified measures against North Korea.
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.
Road Safety and Road Conditions
Roads in South Korea 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 to navigate. Visitors who cannot speak/read Korean should ask their hotel for language cards with the names and contact information for their hotel, destinations, etc. For more information on self-driving, please review OSAC’s Report “Driving Overseas: Best Practices.”
Drivers are aggressive, especially in large cities. Pedestrians should be aware that vehicles frequently do not yield to pedestrians in marked crosswalks.
In 2016, there were 3,906 recorded road fatalities, indicating a steady decrease since July 2013 after the government announced a comprehensive plan for reducing traffic accident casualties for the period 2013-17. The government has met its target to reduce the number of road fatalities to less than 4,000 by 2017. However, the number of reported injurious crashes increased by 3.8% over the previous year. 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. Additionally, Korea’s elderly population (aged 65 and above) poses a higher accident risk when compared to other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. This is a serious concern as the share of the elderly population is increasing steadily.
Seatbelt use in front seats has been compulsory since 1990. However, the use of rear seatbelts on motorways was not made compulsory until 2008; it remains non-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 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 and prevent insurance fraud.
All riders of motorized two-wheel vehicles are required to wear helmets. There is no mandatory helmet law for cyclists, but the majority of bicycle riders due wear protective helmets.
Public Transportation Conditions
South Korea has a modern, efficient public transportation system that is integrated with all modes of public transit: 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 network allows travel between smaller cities, 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 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.
Seoul Incheon International Airport (ICN) is one of the largest, busiest airports in the world. For several years, it has been rated among the best airport worldwide by the Airports Council International.
Gimpo International Airport (GMP) mostly services domestic destinations with some flights to Japan and China.
Other Travel Conditions
In response to the Sewol Ferry disaster on April 16, 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 South Korean government to be more proactive in instituting additional measures to further prevent and/or reduce maritime accidents.
THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE HAS ASSESSED SEOUL AND BUSAN AS BEING LOW- THREAT LOCATIONS FOR TERRORIST ACTIVITY DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS.
Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns
While Americans in South Korea are subject to the worldwide threat from international terrorism, there is no information to suggest 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 in the country cannot be ruled out.
South Korea is one of the most pro-American countries in the world. However, with approximately 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in country, there have been isolated periods of increased anti-American sentiment due to high-profile accidents/crimes committed by American service members.
- The future 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, these events are peaceful in nature and remain small in size.
- In 2011, there were massive protests in Seoul against the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.
- In 2008, there were mass protests in Seoul against the importation of American beef.
- 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.
Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence
THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE HAS ASSESSED SEOUL AND BUSAN AS BEING LOW- THREAT LOCATIONS FOR TERRORIST ACTIVITY DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS.
Political demonstrations are extremely common. In recent years, there has been a marked decrease in violence associated with political demonstrations, but even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational quickly.
- On December 3, several opposition parties introduced a joint impeachment motion against President Park Geun-hye, and on December 9, the National Assembly received the two-thirds majority of votes required to impeach her. The Constitutional Court of Korea has 180 days to review the case and render a decision regarding the legality of the impeachment. Should she be impeached, new elections must be held within 60 days. Large rallies continue as Korean citizens wait for the final ruling from the Constitutional Court.
- In October 2016, a political scandal erupted involving President Park. The disclosure of the scandal to the Korean public the following month resulted in massive rallies in Seoul and throughout the country calling for her immediate resignation. Estimates on crowd sizes ranged from several hundred thousand to over one million participants.
- In November 2015, thousands participated in an anti-government rally (the largest such gathering since 2008) that led to violent clashes with police. Dozens were injured and more than 50 arrests were made.
Due to the frequency of protests and demonstrations that occur throughout South Korea on a daily basis, the U.S. Embassy closely monitors and assesses each event and if warranted based on certain factors, will issue security messages to alert the American community. Visitors should avoid confronting demonstrators and exercise caution if within the vicinity of protests/rallies. Foreigners may not participate in political demonstrations because doing so would violate the terms of one’s visa.
South Korea has experienced earthquakes with limited amounts of damage.
- In March 2014, a 5.1 earthquake struck off the west coast; it was the fourth most powerful earthquake ever recorded on the Korean peninsula.
The monsoon season runs from June-August and typically involves four to six weeks of heavy rain. Damages from flooding vary from year to year, but flooding can be a particular in rural areas.
The typhoon season runs from May through August. In August 2012, typhoons caused a few deaths and moderate, isolated damage.
Infrastructure is highly developed, due in part to the desire to continue economic growth. 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 its protection of intellectual property rights. It cooperates aggressively with U.S. law enforcement to pursue criminal investigations and to seize counterfeit goods, including luxury items.
- In 2013, police working with U.S. federal agents seized over U.S.$66 million worth of counterfeit items (clothing, leather goods).
Industrial espionage, however, remains a high-profile concern.
- In October 2012, a U.S. grand jury indicted the 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 source media has also reported that South Korea may have attempted to compromise protected technology of U.S. F-15 fighters it purchased.
According to the OpenNet Initiative (ONI), the government imposes more constraints on online freedom of 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, mostly related to North Korea, dating, pornography, and gambling. Many are still blocked.
There have also been several high-profile incidents of privacy/data leaks.
- In January 2014, 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 2012, 8.7 million KT Mobile users also had their private information compromised.
- in July 2011, the personal data of over 35 million SK Communications users were compromised.
Official U.S. government travelers are advised not to leave personal electronic items containing sensitive information in unsecured in hotel rooms and private travelers are encouraged to take the same precautions.
Personal Identity Concerns
Although very uncommon, there have been reports of racial discrimination against American citizens attending schools in South Korea.
Women traveling alone should review the State Department’s travel tips for Women Travelers.
Narcotics production/abuse 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 the region. In response, the government has taken significant steps to counter drug transshipment. Reporting suggests that in Seoul, most drug-related offenses occur in the Gangnam and Yongsan Districts and primarily consist of drugs distributed through night clubs.
Kidnappings are rare, but they do occur. KNP crime statistics for 2016 reflected 201 indicted kidnapping cases.
- 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.
- In late 2011, a Korean-American dual citizen was kidnapped and reportedly murdered by a Korean relative because of an inheritance dispute.
In 2013, the KNP created a “tourist police” unit 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.
South Korea has specialized police and hospital units to assist sexual assault victims.
Under the Ministry of Public Administration and Security, the Korean National Police Agency (KNP) is the national police force. With over 115,000 police officers, the KNP’s responsibilities include criminal investigations, public safety, cybersecurity, traffic, counterterrorism, riot control, and dignitary protection. The KNP 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 high threat missions. The KNP SWAT teams are well-equipped with the latest equipment/technology and appear to be well-organized and well-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 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, and unlike prosecutorial services in most developed countries, SPO possesses much investigative authority usually exercised by the 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. Its Threat Information Integration Center is responsible for counter-terrorism activities and security planning for major international events.
The Presidential Security Service (PSS) is independently administered from the Blue House (the executive residence). PSS’s responsibilities include the protection of the Korean president, the Blue House, and other presidential sites, and of the U.S. president and secretary of state (among other national leaders) when in South Korea. Other U.S. cabinet officials are protected by the Dignitary Close Protection unit of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency (SMPA).
Foreigners may call an English-speaking doctor for assistance with emergency medical information. In 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 like in the U.S. Ambulances usually have only basic supplies; they do not have sophisticated medical equipment. Nonetheless, official fire department ambulances (which can be reached at 119) respond quickly and take patients to the nearest hospital.
Contact Information for Available Medical Services
The U.S. Embassy in Seoul maintains a list of English-speaking health care providers in various cities.
Available 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 their website.
Visitors may also contact the U.S. Embassy in Seoul to request information about other air ambulance/medevac services options.
Travelers should consider obtaining temporary medical insurance prior to departing the U.S. 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).
Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance
On May 20, 2015, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed three cases of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). By the end of July 2015, the South Korean government declared the end to the deadly outbreak of MERS, which had claimed 36 lives. For more information, please review OSAC’s Report, “MERS in South Korea.”
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.
The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for South Korea.
OSAC Country Council Information
For any inquiries on the South Korea Country Council, please contact Regional Security Officer Keith J. Byrne at DS_RSOSeoul@state.gov or +82-2397-4161.
Please 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, Republic of Korea
Hours: Mon-Fri: 0800-1700 (except U.S. and Korean holidays)
Embassy Contact Numbers
Embassy Switchboard: +82-2-397-4114
Duty officer (cell): +82-11-9101-9057
After-hours Emergencies involving U.S. citizens: +82-2-397-4114
American Citizen Services (ACS): email@example.com; +82-2-397-4040
Visa inquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org; 1600-8884 (Korea) or 1-703-520-2234 (U.S.)
Foreign Commercial Service (FCS): email@example.com; +82-2-397-4535
Medical Unit: +82-2-397-4140
Political Section: +82-2-397-4210
Economic Section: +82-2-397-4400
Consulate Busan: http://busan.usconsulate.gov/
The U.S. Embassy in Seoul maintains a web page with local information about emergency preparedness. Stay informed by bookmarking Disaster Preparedness page and following local current events during your time in Korea.
If the Embassy becomes aware of any specific and credible threat to your safety and security, we will inform through our website, through social media, or by email if you register your contact details through the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).
U.S. Embassy Seoul's "Americans in Korea" Facebook page
U.S. Embassy Seoul on Twitter
South Korea Country Information Sheet