I more or less get this question every time I travel to the region. Is it safe to travel South Korea? Back in 2011 when I studied in Seoul, my mother was extremely concerned. She worried about radiation levels from Japan and the Yeonpyeong island skirmish. While I lived in here between 2014-2016, there were plenty of rumblings between North and South. It was tense enough that when my friend’s sister visited in early 2016, their DMZ tour was canceled after the North Korean government claimed to have a Hydrogen bomb. When I told my family I was planning to come back again, my cousin told me he was going to worry about me all year.
To answer your question in short: Yes, it’s safe to travel South Korea.
Of course, the long answer is a little more complicated and I am by no means an expert. However, I’ve since been back to South Korea for about a month and I’ve talked with different expat friends about the current mood. Here’s what I found.
Is it safe to travel South Korea?
South Korea and North Korea are technically still at war, and the U.S. has always been an important ally to the south. Relations between the two are both tense and extremely complex. North Korea is one of the poorest, most oppressed countries in the world. Almost yearly its government acts out in some way or another to grab attention – usually with threats of bombs, missiles, etc.
Fast forward to the present day. An American college student who had been arrested for allegedly stealing a flag from his hotel while on a Pyongyang tour was brought home. He was completely comatose and eventually died. This, of course, caused a media outrage. Since then, the U.S. and North Korea have more or less been threatening each other.
Now, in normal situations, the U.S. responds diplomatically. Things quiet down on an international scale, and everyone goes back to their daily business. However, the U.S. also has had diplomatic presidents in the past and our current one is probably the exact opposite of that. Naturally, when you have two almost farcically insane leaders with the nuclear codes, things escalate. South Korea is right in the middle of that escalation.
Are people in South Korea panicking?
Keep in mind, I’m currently in the most southern city, My perception might be different from someone right in the middle of Seoul. I’m also in the Jeolla provinces, which is where the Kim family originated from. I’ve heard that of all the places in South Korea, these are the safest should there be a second war. If there’s one thing that trumps a dictator’s god complex, it’s familial piety.
From what I’ve heard over all, the mood is only slightly worried. South Koreans, in general, don’t fear North Korea. If the U.S. media is on red alert over a North Korean threat, South Korea is usually calmly in the green. If anything, what’s worrying them more is how aggressively the U.S. is responding to relatively normal threats.
What do the professionals say?
Well, searching on the U.S. State Department’s Travel Warnings comes up with no results for South Korea. Additionally, I was able to travel here and get my E-2 visa without issue. I’d like to think that if there was really a threat, I’d be denied at least one of them.
I do get updates from the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, and here’s what my email said:
“The U.S. Embassy Seoul issues this message to U.S. citizens in response to increased media attention and inquiries from U.S. citizens regarding the security situation in Korea. The U.S. Embassy continues to engage in its routine course of business. There have been no changes to our level of staffing, our activities, or the guidance routinely provided to U.S. citizens in Korea. We remind all U.S. citizens that personal security and emergency preparedness is a continuous process and that U.S. citizens and family members must take an active role in reviewing their personal security and emergency preparedness.”
Suffice to say, the professionals do not currently see any major safety issues with traveling or even moving to South Korea.
What’s my personal perspective?
As someone who just signed up to live here for at least a year, I personally feel safer here than when I lived about two hours from New York City and one hour from Philadelphia.
I could go on about how complex the North and South relationship is and how empty North Korea’s threats have always been and always will be. Just know, South Korea is safe. And should anything ever happen, there are a ton of procedures in place to make sure you as a foreign visitor make it out safely.
Let’s just put it this way. During the Korean War, Seoul had only had two main bridges over the Han River – the Hangang Rail Bridge and the Hangang Bridge. During the first Battle of Seoul in 1950, both bridges were destroyed in an effort to stop North Korean soldiers from advancing past the city. This wound up trapping and killing many South Korean soldiers and refugees trying to escape. Today, I found at least 29 bridges over the Han river. In the last fifty years, not only has South Korea rebuilt two bridges, it added 27 more and is not apparently one of the leading experts on bridge construction.
Tips for safety just in case:
- If possible, register your travel plans before you leave. If you’re a U.S. citizen, enroll in the Smart Traveller Enrollment Program (STEP) or if you’re Australian, register here. This is a good idea in general no matter where you visit.
- Always keep your family and friends up to date with your whereabouts. This is when social media really comes in handy! I always send my parents my general flight itinerary and where I’ll be.
- Review your embassy’s Disaster Preparedness page. This is the U.S. one for Seoul.
And that’s it! I promise you, it’s safe to travel South Korea. Once you get here and start exploring, you’ll realize how little North Korea affects daily life here.
Looking for more posts on Korean travel? Read these next:
- First Timer’s Guide to Seoul
- 10 Weird Things That Happen When You Become an Expat in Korea
- Why I Refuse to Visit North Korea
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What are your thoughts? Do you think it’s safe to travel South Korea right now?