Is Korea Safe?

As tensions rise between the North and South, foreigners question if it’s safe to travel or live in South Korea.

A popular map Korean expats living in the city of Busan are showing their friends and family back home. (map by Mathew Golem)

Get out while you still can. It’s time to pack your bags and find a new country. Well, at least that’s what my friends and family in the US tell me. After seeing a constant flow of news reports about the conflict in the media back home, I can’t blame them for thinking that way.

So is Korea safe? Although I am following the news more closely these days, I can honestly say I feel safer walking through Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul than I do in Times Square (especially after that failed car bomb attempt). It’s true the relationship between the South and North has deteriorated since the day I got here.

It seems like just yesterday former Korean President Roh Moo-hyun was sauntering across the 38th parallel on his way to Pyongyang. There he met Kim Jong-il at the Inter-Korean Summit and signed a peace declaration. Mr. Kim even gave Mr. Roh 4 tons of rare mushrooms as a gift – I’m not joking. Roh Moo-hyun gave Kim Jong-il some Korean dramas and Elizabeth Taylor movies which are banned in the North. Fast forward 4 years and the DPRK has kicked out UN weapons inspectors, tested a nuclear bomb, sunk a South Korean battle ship, and shelled Yeonpyeong-do.

Well that surely is enough to leave, right? Nope. This type of stuff has been happening since the Korean War ended in 1953. You can’t deny that tensions are on the rise. However, to date there have been no warnings against travel to South Korea by any foreign embassy.

Most foreigners living in Korea seem to feel pretty relaxed about the current situation, and even joke about it at times. Take for instance a recent article on one of Korea’s most popular blogs,  The Marmot’s Hole by Robert J. Koehler – a magazine editor living in Seoul and a 10-year-resident of Korea. In his post What, Me Worry?, he talks about South Korea’s recent live-fire artillery drills on Yeonpyeong-do, and how the drill start time depended on the weather:

Now, when I woke up this morning, the weather looked pretty good. So good, in fact, that looking at the window, I thought it was the perfect day for a live-fire artillery drill. I considered breaking the old howitzer out of storage, bringing it to the roof and firing a couple rounds towards Gangnam. It’s been a long week, though, so I just made a cup of coffee, flipped on the TV and watched a couple of episodes of season 2 of “The Mentalist.”

There have already been a few signs that North Korea wants to make amends. But we have seen that before time and again.  What does safe mean these days anyways in our globalized world? If the North was stupid and crazy enough to launch an attack, the US would support the South and the Chinese would help defend the North. It would be World War 3. I just can’t see it happening.

For now all we can do is hope for the best and pray Armageddon never happens. In the meantime, you can find me eating bibimbap and taking photos of blue and pink dogs in Korea.

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  1. Simon says:

    I gotta say, I’ve never really been worried about anything happening between North and South Korea, and it seems to me that everyone I know here isn’t worried as well. The people that are most concerned are people watching the news back home.

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