Lately, the Korean peninsula has been in the news a lot. With threats of war from North Korean and joint military exercises between South Korea and the Americans, I’ve been asked a few times recently if it’s safe to visit South Korea. And, with the insane amount of news coverage the area has been receiving, you’d be forgiven for thinking for the peninsula is on the brink of war.
But is it safe to visit South Korea? In short, the answer is yes, South Korea is a very safe place to visit. I wouldn’t even hesitate to take a tour into North Korea.
However, let me delve into it a bit more and explain a little of the region’s history. I’ll even give you a few things to watch for so you know whether or not the situation on the Korean peninsula has changed in regards to traveler’s safety.
A (Very) Brief History of the Korean Peninsula
The Korean peninsula, which today comprises North and South Korea, has changed hands many times throughout history. From the Chinese to the Mongols, Korea has had very few years of self-determination. Most recently, Korea suffered a forced annexation by Japan in the early 20th century. After World War II, Korea was split into two different countries, the communist north and the democratic south.
Everything was all sunshine and lollipops for a few years until Kim Il-sung, father of Kim Jong-il and grandfather of Kim Jong-Un, decided to invade South Korea. Within days, his communist troops conquered nearly the whole of the peninsula prompting the United Nations to intervene. Over the next three years, the border continued to fluctuate, until finally settling in 1953 with very little change.
Ultimately, though, no peace treaty was signed, and instead a simple cease-fire ended the active fighting. The agreement dictated that each country retreat one kilometer from their present position, creating the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, that you can still tour today.
Over the last 60 years, the peninsula has been relatively free of hostilities. However, things have flared up at times, with shots being fired across the DMZ on more than one occasion resulting in the deaths of several Americans and North Koreans. There have also been many incidents of North Korean soldiers being killed trying to run covert operations in the South, several naval incidents between navies, and even the bombing of a South Korean island by the North in 2010.
If incidents like those in the past haven’t led to full-scare war, it’s unlikely that the current rhetoric will lead to anything.
Both South Korea and North Korea have too much to lose by engaging in war.
Why is North Korea Such a Jerk?
The truthful answer’s that North Korea’s always been a jerk. Maybe you’ve just recently starting paying attention to the region because you are planning travel to Korea or even considering moving there, but the bottom line is that North Korea is just a big bully. Sure, they might yell and stomp their feet a bit, but inside, they are just an insecure child looking for attention.
Seriously though, because of their internal propaganda campaign, and for Kim Jong-un to convince his military leaders that he is a capable leader, the country must maintain their regular threats against South Korea and America. Without these constant threats, no one would pay attention to North Korea. These threats usually end with western nations agreeing to provide food aid to North Korea in exchange for them dropping their nuclear programs or what not. Essentially rewarding the North for its behavior.
It’s a cycle that has been continually repeated for the last 10-15 years.
How Can I Tell if it’s No Longer Safe to Travel to South Korea?
First, if you actually want to know about the safety of the Korean peninsula, turn off the TV and don’t visit major news websites. All you’re really getting is rhetoric designed to make the corporations money and keep you watching.
Instead, here are four common sense ways to tell if the shit is about to hit the fan. These suggestions should help you recognize if there is an actual risk to you and to give you a few talking points to share with your worried mom.
1. I usually hate suggesting that you look at the travel warnings given out by your government. However, since there aren’t any warnings for travel to South Korea, that’s a great place to start. If your government actually issues a travel warning advising against travel to the Republic of Korea, things have likely heated up a bit. While most countries put out travel warnings, I’ve included a link to the US page where you can find their list of usually overcautious travel warnings: U.S. Department of State Current Travel Warnings. (Keep in mind that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is North Korea. The US always has a warning for travel there because they don’t have an embassy in country.)
2. If DMZ tours are canceled for an extended period of time, it might be a sign of escalation. This isn’t so much a sign of a coming war, but if they are still running tours close to the border, the military is very unconcerned about an imminent attack.
3. If your home country starts recommending that non-essential embassy staff leave the country, it might be worth taking this as a warning for yourself as well. This goes doubly true if they start to close embassies.
4. If the U.S. military and South Korean military start to cancel leaves or push a lot of troops towards this border, this might be a good indication that they have information you might want to heed. (This does not include during times of regularly scheduled drills.) Also, if the Korean and US militaries raise their alert levels to the highest state, it’s worth paying attention.
Obviously, there are no guarantees with what I’ve stated above. However, if you keep in mind a few common sense measure and remember that North Korea has been threatening to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire” every other week for the last 60 years, you’ll have a fantastic trip to South Korea.