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Let’s start by separating the “is South Korea safe?” question into two parts. The first part is related to a conflict with North Korea that would likely unleash a level of violence in urban areas not seen since WWII. The second part is related to day-to-day safety outside the threat of open conflict with North Korea. We’ll break down the two so you can make a solid decision on whether or not to buy those tickets and book an Airbnb in Seoul for the family.
Potential Conflict With North Korea
This is certainly the glaring subject, so let’s knock it out. All-out conflict is certainly a real threat and the bombastic rhetoric shootouts between the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea have made it difficult to sift through the real and the fake.
Let’s focus on the facts. Tensions between North Korea and the united front presented by South Korea and the U.S. were recently the highest they have been since the combat conclusion of the Korean War in 1953. The catalyst for the increase in tension has been due to the rapid missile development and testing conducted by North Korea through 2017 and into 2018. Without weighing you down with the details, through its missile tests, North Korea proved it has moved well beyond its disastrous past test launch records and is now capable of striking a wide range of targets throughout Asia and even in the United States. What was once a laughable attempt at a nuclear weapons program has suddenly become very real.
A hawkish attitude in the White House and threats of both conventional and nuclear strikes from both sides created what seemed like a nuclear game of chicken. Despite the strong rhetoric, both sides have addressed a desire to sit down and discuss ways to end the standoff. A recent meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un has cooled the tension significantly.
What would war look like?
As it currently stands, levels of tension are low. This certainly doesn’t mean things could reverse (both leaders are mercurial as we’ve seen), but the current mood is one of cooperation and cautious optimism.
If things were to worsen and strikes became likely, obviously North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability creates a long list of possible strike options. What should concern the traveler most in terms of personal safety is that in the case of any sort of exchange, North Korea would be likely to unleash an unimaginable amount of firepower on the city of Seoul. North Korea has an impressive amount of artillery dialed in on the city that would likely turn it to rubble in the event of an exchange. This part is scary, certainly.
In the words of U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, war with North Korea would be “catastrophic”. War games (a way to model out and predict the development, damage, and outcome of a potential conflict) conducted by U.S. military and intelligence officials estimate that civilian casualties would be in the hundreds of thousands within the first two days. At best, a traveler in Seoul would be evacuated from the city and set on a race against time to get evacuated from the Korean peninsula and out of harm’s way.
Hope for avoiding conflict
The good news for the traveler is neither side wants this fatal outcome and every step in the negotiation process makes it less likely to occur. While treating North Korea as a rational actor (a foreign policy term that describes a country or group consistently making logical decisions) would run counter to the state’s makeup and past behavior, it should be recognized that North Korea is aware of the fact that war leaves it next to no chance of survival.
Kim Jong Un understands nuclear capability is his country’s highest card and one that is respected by all parties. With that card, much can be achieved — that is if the card is played correctly. As a bargaining chip, North Korea can request a reduced U.S. presence in South Korea, reduced sanctions, better economic treatment in the world economy and so on. There are plenty of avenues.
It should be noted that North Korea has backed out of multiple agreements in the past and repeatedly chosen the preservation of its way of life and nuclear program over other alternatives. However, the recent tension and meetings between the two sides are unprecedented.
What does this all mean for travelers?
We apologize for all the doomsday talk, but to be a traveler in South Korea at the outbreak of war would be disastrous and life-threatening. The hope is the scenario is growing increasingly less likely, and at the current level of tension, there would have to be a series of fallouts before strikes would be considered. This means that a traveler in South Korea would likely have ample time to get off the peninsula before any threat became a reality.
What does the State Department say to travelers?
Reading the State Department’s official page on travel to South Korea is like one big exhale. It advises normal travel precautions and awareness of demonstrations and joint military exercises between South Korean and American forces (although those are currently dialed down due to negotiations). It also advises travelers to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which is a fairly standard move regardless of the overseas destination. Other than that, there are essentially zero red flags.
And the non-war part?
Let’s continue with the exhale here. South Korea has a reputation as being one of the safest major travel destinations in Asia, if not the world. Violent crime, especially murder, is highly uncommon in South Korean cities and statistics pale in comparison to those of some American metro areas. The Gangseo and Yeongdeungpo districts see most of Seoul’s violent crimes. They are low-income housing centers home to many foreign workers and the areas have little draw for tourists. Aside from those two sections, touring the streets of Seoul (or really any city) gets the green light.
One thing to be aware of, as is common in many large cities around the world, is pickpockets targeting foreigners in large crowds. Taking standard precautions like wearing backpacks on the front of your body in crowds and not leaving valuables unattended will keep you and your stuff safe. This more of a common sense issue.
Local authorities and law enforcement are trustworthy and readily available. Don’t hesitate to approach officers on the street. Just be creative in your communication if your Korean needs a little (or a lot) of work.
Koreans, especially those in Seoul, are used to tourists exploring their country so don’t be shy in asking for help and practicing your Korean.
Solo Female Travelers
Travel to Asia often comes with a long list of rules and adjustments for solo female travelers. Sometimes these adjustments address safety issues, sometimes they address differences in culture and the social standing of women. South Korea doesn’t fall into this category and is actually a highly recommended destination for women on solo adventures.
The country’s low crime rates and general safety help the equation, as does the ever-advancing position of women in Korean society. More than half of Korean women are employed in some capacity and 25 percent of married women work full time. Independent women aren’t a novel concept for Koreans, although you will certainly find people who’ll be surprised you’ve ventured so far from home by yourself.
So, is South Korea safe?
The answer is yes. However, if tensions rise with North Korea, travel plans should be canceled. Direct conflict is unlikely, however, there is little reason to put that much on the line. In the meantime, while tensions are low and the sense of cautious optimism is intact, South Korea should be enjoyed as the excellent tourist destination that it is.