Safety and security
Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the Korean peninsula has been divided by a demilitarised zone (DMZ) separating the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). Peace has been maintained under an armistice agreement. If you’re in the area of the DMZ, you should take extra care and follow the advice of the local authorities.
The level of tension on the Korean peninsula remains high due to a series of nuclear and missile tests by the DPRK (North Korea), including two intercontinental ballistic missile tests in July 2017 and 1 in November 2017, two nuclear tests in 2016 and a nuclear test on 3 September 2017. There remains a threat of further missile or nuclear tests, which could lead to further instability in the region. In the past, these haven’t affected daily life, but you should keep in touch with news broadcasts, follow the advice of the local authorities and check this travel advice for any updates.
The level of tension and the security situation can change with little notice. For example, tensions increased after the sinking of the South Korean Navy ship Cheonan and an artillery attack against Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, and also following artillery fire in the DMZ in August 2015. Tensions usually rise around the time of the regular South Korean-US military exercises, notably those held in March and August.
At times of increased tensions, you should make yourself familiar with local procedures and preparations, including civil emergency exercises (see below). You can also stay up to date with our travel advice for South Korea by subscribing to our email alert service to be notified of future updates, and by following our Twitter and Facebook channels.
As part of your own contingency plans, you should make sure you have easy access to your passport and other important documents such as nationality documents and birth and marriage certificates, as well as any essential medication. You can read our crisis overseas page for further information and advice, including sections on what you can do to prepare effectively, what you should do in the event of a crisis abroad, and how we can help you.
Civil emergency exercises and advice
The South Korean authorities sometimes hold civil emergency exercises. Sirens are sounded, transport stopped and some people are asked to take shelter indoors, including in designated metro stations or basements. Shelters in Seoul are marked with a special symbol. Participation by foreign nationals in these exercises isn’t obligatory but you should follow any instructions by local authorities during any exercises.
The South Korean government has developed a smartphone application with civil emergency advice, including shelter locations, different types of alarms, medical facilities and emergency services. Search for ‘emergency ready app’ on Android or Apple app stores.
Crime against foreigners is rare but there are occasional isolated incidents. While most reported crimes are thefts, there have been some rare cases of assaults, including sexual assaults, particularly around bars and nightlife areas.
Take extra care of passports, credit cards and money in crowded areas and be careful in areas visited by foreigners, like Itaewon. Take care when travelling alone at night and only use legitimate taxis or public transport.
For emergency assistance, or to report a crime, call 112 for police (a 24 hour interpretation service is available) and 119 for ambulance and fire.
Public demonstrations in South Korea are mostly peaceful and well-policed, but you should take extra care as in any crowded place.
You’ll need an International Driving Permit to drive in South Korea. Make sure you have fully comprehensive insurance.
Car and motorbike drivers are presumed to be at fault in accidents involving motorcycles or pedestrians. Criminal charges and heavy penalties are common when accidents result in injury, even if guilt is not proved. Watch out for motorcycles travelling at speed on pavements.
Taxi drivers tend to speak little or no English. Although translation services are available, have your destination written in Korean, if possible with a map.
In 2016, there were 4,899 reported road deaths in South Korea. This equates to 9.5 road deaths per 100,000 of population and compares to the UK average of 2.8 road deaths per 100,000 of population in 2015.
Older (non-3G) phones bought outside South Korea will not normally work in the country, and fitting foreign phones with local SIMs (e.g. to avoid roaming fees) is not usually possible.