Athletes, trainers and sports fans from across the globe are making their way to South Korea for the 2018 Winter Olympics. It's the country's second time hosting an Olympics game, and many of those who expect or want to attend might be wondering: is South Korea safe? It's a natural question to ask when visiting any unfamiliar place, and it's perhaps even more relevant in this case, given how much geopolitical tension there is on the Korean Peninsula.
But setting aside geopolitics for the moment, South Korea is more or less a safe country. "By U.S. standards, crime rates throughout [South Korea] are low, and the country is generally a safe destination for most travelers," according to the Overseas Security Advisory Council, a division of the U.S. State Department. It adds:
A majority of the crimes that are reported are non-violent and non-confrontational, including: pickpocketing, purse snatching, and thefts from hotel rooms or homes. These incidents occur more frequently in major metropolitan areas, tourist sites, and crowded markets.
According to United Nations data, South Korea's murder rate in 2014 was just 0.74 per 100,000 people. By contrast, the murder rate in the U.S. that same year was 4.43 per 100,000 people — almost six times higher. The country also has low levels of other violent crimes, and gun violence in South Korea particular is especially rare, likely due to the country's strict gun control laws.
However, it's worth noting that though violent crime in South Korea is low by global standards, it disproportionately impacts women. During the first eight months of 2016, over 90 percent of people in South Korea who reported violent crimes were women, according to NPR, and a 2014 survey found that the country's women were twice as likely as their male counterparts to name violent crime as their top concern.
"It's not [that] gender-violence crime has suddenly erupted," Kim Hyunsoo, a coordinator at Korea Women's Association United, told NPR at the time. "It's a problem that's existed persistently in Korean society. It's a crime that's a result of discrimination and hatred against women."
So, while South Korea is a safe country by international standards, the data suggests that women are more likely to be victimized there than men.
Now, about those geopolitics. Despite its low crime rate, it would be incorrect to call South Korea a safe haven. This is because it's bordered by North Korea.
Korea split into two countries shortly after World War II, with the south allying itself with the U.S. and the Communist-controlled north siding with the Soviet Union. The two sides went to war for control of the peninsula in 1953, and though they eventually signed a ceasefire, both countries claim ownership over the entire peninsula, and legally, they're still at war with each other. Needless to say, this has resulted in an extremely tense situation between the two countries — and North Korea's nuclear proliferation has only heightened that tension.
On many occasions, the North Korean government has threatened to turn the south into a "sea of fire." Although it hasn't made good on these threats, the fact that it keeps making them highlights a crucial point: If North Korea ever decided to mount a serious attack on the West, it would be more likely to attack South Korea — a U.S. ally with over 35,000 American troops — than the U.S. mainland itself. After all, South Korea's capital is a mere 35 miles away from the border between North and South Korea — a border that's often referred to as one of the most dangerous places on the planet.
It's unlikely that North Korea will attack South Korea during the Olympic games. But it's not impossible, and so while the country is generally a safe place to travel, there is a small ongoing risk of nuclear war that's worth taking into account.