South Korea can offer something for almost everyone. It offers a blend of manmade and natural wonders, deep historical roots and modern advances, tradition and innovation.
South Korea is a place of incredible beauty, especially their national parks. Seoraksan National Park is home to over 2,000 animal species, including the Korean goral, a wild goat, and the musk deer. It is also a haven for hot springs, unique rock formations and ancient temples. The park is massive.
South Korea is a great place to enjoy fried chicken and beer. One of the most renowned fried chicken and beer restaurants is Hanchu in Seoul. The chicken is fried in a light, crispy coating alongside tasty hot peppers. If you want a different take on southern fried chicken from the United States, Hanchu could be it. Their delicious stuffed peppers are sought after, too.
Witness the progression of thousands of years of culture, history and art by visiting the National Museum of Korea in Seoul. The artifacts and artworks on display date all the way back to the Paleolithic Age, reflecting the wide variety and rich history of life in Korea. The facility itself is gorgeous, with a modern design backdropped by water and mountainous terrain,. The idea was to demonstrate the Korean value of balance – yin and yang.
South Korea is home to some amazing modern architecture. The Namsan Seoul Tower is a great example. The tower stretches over 480 meters above sea level. For a spectacular view of Seoul, try visiting the tower at night and getting a good eyeful of the city lights.
Travel safety tips
You are going to need to do two kinds of planning before you visit South Korea: fun planning and safety planning. Enjoying a trip abroad to the fullest means a lot of planning ahead and preparing for emergency situations. Here are a few essential South Korea travel tips from the United States Department of State (USDOS).
Get your papers in order
Before you go abroad anywhere, make sure you have all the right documentation. To travel to South Korea, you will only need a passport that is valid upon entry into the country. Just to be safe, though, you should always get a passport that will be valid up to six months after your departure. You will not need a visa if you are not staying longer than 90 days, but you will need one for longer stays, or for employment at your destination.
Be aware of the DPRK
The United States enjoys a relatively good relationship with South Korea, the Republic of Korea (ROK). The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, is very different story. North Korea has made headlines in the past few years regarding its nuclear position, but there is still a relatively stable armistice agreement between North and South Korea. The relationship is often strained. Besides the occasional nuclear tests, there have also been incursions into the Republic of Korea’s territory. If you are up for visiting South Korea, it is wise to stay and be informed of the political climate with North Korea. The United States Department of State published relevant information on travel.state.gov to give citizens important information relevant to North Korea.
Time your trip
Plan ahead and schedule your trip when the weather will be most cooperative. South Korea experiences heavy rains during its June-August monsoon season as well as the May-November typhoon system. If you are going abroad during these times, trip insurance might a good investment. You might check the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) website for up-to-date weather information.
The Overseas Security Advisory Counsel South Korea Crime and Safety Report lists crime in South Korea as ‘low.’ South Korea is also a leader in Internet speed and availability. It is wise to store important documents securely, and electronically for easy access, and secure personal belongings to avoid pickpocketing, purse snatching and theft from hotel rooms. Internet phishing schemes and theft of Personal Identifiable Information (PII) for criminal intent have increased. Gun crimes are rare due to stringent gun control laws. You should be especially wary in crowded areas and local nightlife and shopping districts.
Drivers can be aggressive in big cities, and road have been known to wash out during the rainy season. Pedestrians are advised to make contact with drivers and be wary when crossing roads. Road fatalities in South Korea are reportedly almost twice the rate of the United States, which is 10/100K. Trains, buses, and subways are clean and reliable with signage in English and Korean. Use only legitimate taxis and be aware of taxi scams where the drive turns off the meter and then charges an exorbitant rate.
There were 19 cases of United States citizens becoming victims of sexual assault in South Korea in 2015. Make sure you look out for yourself and your travel companions. Stick together and guard your drinks. If you or your travel companion are sexually assaulted, make sure you get medical attention and contact your U.S. Embassy to help make a determination about whether or not you want to involve the police.
Pirated and counterfeit goods may be widely available in South Korea, it is not okay to buy them. It is against the law to buy these pirated items in South Korea and to bring them into the United States. If you need more information about pirated goods, intellectual property and the law, check out the United States Department of Justice Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Division.
Watch what you say
South Korea’s tense relationship with North Korea has caused it to crack down on any actions deemed to be security risks for the state. Authorities have the legal right to detain, arrest and imprison anyone believed to have committed acts intended to “endanger the security of the state.” That includes statements “deemed to praise the political system and/or officials of the DPRK.” Watch what you say and what you publish while you are in South Korea, even statements that might be taken out of context.
The ROK Human Rights Commission Act prohibits discrimination against individuals because of their sexual orientation. South Korea is still a conservative country when it comes to LGBTQ issues. There are no laws on the books specifying punishment for persons found to have discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation, and same-sex marriages are not recognized. However, there are an increasing number of LGBTQ-oriented clubs, festivals and organizations advocating for LGBTQ issues. It is your decision whether or not to be open about your sexuality or gender identification while you are in South Korea, but you should know that it is viewed as a foreign phenomenon and not yet generally accepted.
The air quality in South Korea can be so poor it affects visibility. Be cautious if you have lung problems or asthma. Yellow dust is inhalable particles from the dry desert regions of China and Mongolia. Even natural dust pollution can pick up harmful pollutants as it drifts over Korea. These particles can cause heart disease, cancer or early death. The dust can be especially dangerous to older adults and young children.
There is speculation that some of this pollution comes from neighboring China. At least some of it is home-grown from industrial activity.
Persons with limited mobility, or who use wheelchairs, should have handicap access in most of the modern sector of the country. In some of the older, historic areas of South Korea access may be restricted. Do some research to determine handicap accessibility to your desired travel stops and plan accordingly.
Taking care of your health
Travel clinics use a tool called Travax to stay alert of health threats around the world and help you prepare with preventions. The Centers for Disease Control has a destination tool on their website that forewarns travelers to be immunized and get preventive medicine for Hepatitis A & B, Typhoid, Rabies, Japanese Encephalitis, and Malaria, for example. It is very helpful to translate your important health information into the foreign language so a Korean health professional can make informed decisions for your best care if needed. Prescriptions should be packed in original containers, with more than enough for the duration of your trip. Treatment Abroad reports, “The South Korean healthcare system is run by the Ministry of Health and Welfare and is free to all citizens at the point of delivery. The system is funded by a compulsory National Health Insurance Scheme that covers 97% of the population. Foreign nationals living in South Korea enjoy the same access to universal healthcare as the local people.”
Update your personal health record
A personal health record is an electronic list of facts about your health that a new care provider would need in order to give you the best medical attention possible. Make sure you keep an up-to-date list of important factors like allergies, medications, surgeries and chronic conditions online and keep instructions on how to reach it on your person. If there is an emergency and you need fast treatment at an unfamiliar medical facility, your doctor is going to need as much information as possible to make quick decisions. You should also find a reliable translation service and keep two versions of your personal health record: one in English and one in Korean. Your personal health information is useless if the caring physician cannot read it.
Travel medical insurance
During a real medical emergency in South Korea, you may need a priority referral to premier care or medical evacuation services. Both of these services are essential and costly. You should invest in travel medical insurance before you depart. Having the right insurance coverage can save you tens to even hundreds of thousands of dollars in an unforeseen emergency situation.
Make sure you stay in touch with your local United States Embassy or Consulate to get up-to-date news, travel warnings and emergency information. It is important to register your trip in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program at step.state.gov, so the U.S. Department of State can keep you informed or get you out if a national crisis arises. They cannot help you if they do not know how to reach you or where you are.
Avoid North Korea
The U.S. Department State warns U.S. citizens to seriously consider not traveling to North Korea at all. United States citizens in North Korea are under North Korean law. Breaking one of these laws, even accidentally, can lead to arrest and detainment – for an unlimited amount of time. The U.S. State Department:
“…strongly urges U.S. citizens to avoid all travel to North Korea/the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) due to the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement. This system imposes unduly harsh sentences for actions that would not be considered crimes in the United States and threatens U.S. citizen detainees with being treated in accordance with ‘wartime law of the DPRK.’ Since the United States does not maintain diplomatic or consular relations with North Korea, the U.S. government has no means to provide normal consular services to U.S. citizens in North Korea.” The bottom line is that if you go to North Korea, you are on your own in case of problems.
Here are examples of how simple it could be to break the law in North Korea, making it advisable to stay away:
- You cannot take unauthorized photographs. Taking photographs without permission can be viewed as espionage. Consequences can range from confiscated cameras to detention of the photographer.
- You cannot interact with the local population. Do not speak to the local population.
- You cannot take unauthorized trips. Each of your movements will have to be planned and declared in advance.
- You cannot exchange currency with an unauthorized vendor. Do not buy anything that has not been state sanctioned.
- You cannot shop at stores not designated for foreigners. There are special shopping areas for outsiders.
- You cannot engage in unsanctioned political activities. That includes political speech, demonstrations and other activities.
- Speaking against the North Korean regime is deemed highly seditious and can have grave consequences. Even if you have some information in your possession – a written criticism of the government, could be cause for arrest.
The USDOS also adds this note about touring North Korea:
“Do not assume that joining a tour group will keep you safe in North Korea. Do assume that all of your activities will be closely monitored and reported to DPRK authorities. Do assume that the revenue generated by your tour group will help finance the DPRK’s nuclear program.”
For more travel safety tips, and a free travel safety checklist, visit Depart Smart.org.