How Safe is South Korea?

A girl crossing Cheonggye Stream in Seoul

We love living in South Korea, but sometimes when we see stories like this… we just shake our heads and groan. Not again.

Concerns about poor safety standards have become common in the South Korean media in the last year. The issue first came to prominence with the tragic sinking of the Sewol Ferry that killed 304 passengers, mostly children; this was followed by concerns about the safety of schools, South Korean made cars and the Seoul subway among others. The Sewol tragedy led to a wave of public anger at the government – mostly for perceived lax enforcement of safety regulations and alleged corruption and nepotism.

Generally speaking, South Korea doesn’t have the same sort of attitude to public safety that many western countries do. When I first arrived in South Korea 6 years ago I was shocked to see two elementary school kids ride their bikes across an intersection against a red light, through some minor road works, under the arm of a moving digging machine and over a narrow wooden plank that spanned a 6-foot deep trench – and nobody batted an eyelid, not even the guy operating the digger!

But credit where credit is due – there seems to be a lot of soul searching and public debate going on. I suspect that those responsible were hoping the sinking of the Sewol could just be put down as tragic accident and everyone could carry on as before, but the Korean public have made it clear that those days are over. If there’s one thing you can be sure of in South Korea, its change.

If you’re planning to visit for the first time and now you’re getting spooked, don’t worry – South Korea is very safe place in most ways. Here’s some tips on what to look out for and how to stay safe.

1. Traffic – This is the big one. Last time I looked, South Korea had the highest pedestrian road-death toll in the OECD. Korean roads are dangerous. A part of the problem is that they don’t look dangerous at first glance – you wont see thousands of overloaded motorcycles pouring past you at intersections; there aren’t giant lorries piled high with human cargo; and you certainly aren’t going to be car-jacked at gunpoint. Your average Korean driver just isn’t very careful – in my opinion, it’s that simple. Most people (even small children) don’t wear seat-belts, running red lights is taken pretty lightly and breaking the speed-limit is standard practice. My advice is, when you cross at an intersection – look carefully. Make eye-contact with the drivers if you’re not sure they’ve seen you and confirm cars are actually stopping before you step out. If you’re in a taxi and you feel he is driving more quickly than is safe, you can ask the driver to “Chon-chon-hee Ga-chu-say-oh” which means, “please go slowly”.

2. Demolition & Construction sites – Big sites in the centre of Seoul are usually fine. It’s the medium sized and small sites in residential areas that you need to be careful of. The construction usually comes right up to the street and is surrounded by scaffolding two or three stories high draped with gray-green blankets intended to supress the dust and catch bits of flying debris. The problem is that they don’t stop much more than fine debris and what goes on inside is often pretty heavy duty – old houses and small apartment blocks are destroyed by a machine with a giant two fingered claw which gradually rips the unwanted house to pieces – often still with the furniture inside. Pieces of cement, steel and wood are occasionally flung into the air and walls sometimes unexpectedly collapse. I’ve also seen tools and pieces of building materials fall into the street from several stories up – luckily there was nobody passing at the time. It’s best to walk on the other side of the road when passing construction or demolition. Just don’t go near it.

3. Ferries – Obviously, you’re going to be wondering about this because you’ve heard all about the tragic sinking of the Sewol Ferry. Personally, I feel that Korean ferries are probably the safest in the world right now. Koreans are very sensitive to losing face and the Sewol Ferry tragedy, as well as being incredibly awful and sad, made South Korea lose face big-time. As a result, the entire ferry industry will have been gone over with a fine-toothed comb a bazillion times by now. Any captain whose ferry wasn’t spick & span with the correct number of life-jackets, a well-trained crew, etc. will have been out on his tooshy months ago. So go ahead, take that ferry.

4. Money – It is extraordinarily unlikely that you will get mugged or have you’re pockets picked in South Korea, so relax. When it comes to this kind of crime Korean people are as honest as babes. You might get ripped off or overcharged in tourist areas like Insadong or Myeongdong, so count your change.

5. Waterparks and swimming pools – I’ve heard some horror stories about the dirtiness of the water. The waterparks get very crowded in summer and there have been some documentaries on South Korean television in recent years that exposed terrible water-quality by lab testing secretly collected samples. They even interviewed people who claimed they came out in terrible rashes after swimming there, so…I’d say they’re fine as long as you don’t actually get any water on you. Swimming pools are a mixed bag, I’ve been to a few that were fine and been to one that was pretty gross. I’ve also heard plenty of horror stories, secondhand. The thing is though, that most swimming pools in Korea are indoors, very crowded and really, really shallow. They are usually about 1.5 metres deep at both ends. But look, you don’t come to South Korea for the swimming pools anyway, right? So go do something else and don’t let it get you down.