When it comes to crime, there aren't many places that are safer than Korea. Their crime rate is amazingly low by international standards. In 1997, the US had 258 robberies per 100,000 people. Germany had 86. Korea had 9. Nine! In 2015, Seoul was almost at the bottom of Numbeo's ranking of 415 cities by crime index. Only Osaka, Japan was safer.

Korea's murder rate is one-fourth that in the US, probably because it's very hard to buy a gun there. Even auto theft is rare. In Kangnung (Gangneung) in 2001, we sometimes saw cars with keys left in the ignition. I haven't seen that in the US since I was a little kid in the 1950s. (If you get a car, I don't actually recommend doing this. On second thought, the way Koreans drive, you might be safer if someone stole your car.)

When we were in Seoul in 2004, I did a double-take as we walked past a motorbike parked on the sidewalk. (Yes, they do that here.) The rider had left his wallet on the seat. He wasn't anywhere in sight. I figured it would be gone in minutes. We walked by again about 45 minutes later. Bike and wallet were still there. That's Korea.

One thing that's a bit troubling for the long term is that petty crimes and what you might call "kid crimes" seem to be on the increase. I've heard of teachers having bicycles stolen. Margaret almost lost her wallet to some kid who lifted it from her tote bag when she wasn't looking -- though he gave it back when he was confronted, claiming it was a joke. We also had an umbrella taken from beside the door of a cafe -- a little thing, but disappointing. And for the first time since the 1997 economic crisis, the number of violent crimes increased in 2003. At 4 percent, it wasn't a big jump, but the character of the violence seemed to get a little more senseless and random.

I'd say I'm worried about Korea catching up with the West in this, but so many other places are staying so far ahead of them that I'm just not. At least for now, Korea is one of the safest places you can live, as far as crime is concerned.

Another matter to consider, though: some critics say there's more assault and rape than the Korean government's statistics show, because a lot of it goes unreported. Ask your Korean friends about this, and what you should do to be safe. If you're fresh off the airplane, just act like you would in Europe. That is, don't be careless, but don't be paranoid either.

Public drunkenness. Ah, now that's another story. It's not illegal in Korea. But if you like to party, don't celebrate this too much -- just wait until you step in a puddle of vomit or urine some early Saturday morning.

Drunken men of every nation behave unpredictably. I don't want to over-emphasize this, but there are possible hazards for you here.
Drinking with the boss
Drinking with the boss
I'd like to say, "just stay away from the bars." But drinking is a big part of social and professional life in Korea, especially for men. When somebody invites you to have a drink with him, it's rude to say no. So if you're male, chances are pretty good that you'll find yourself in a Korean bar at least once during your stay there. You could be there with your fellow teachers, your students, even your boss.

My recommendation is to keep your wits about you, which means "stay sober." There's a sneaky little trick to this.

Korean tradition says "Never let your friend's glass be empty." This also means "Don't fill it until it is empty." So just don't drain your glass.

Also, when you go out with other Westerners, take a few Korean friends along if you can. They'll be better prepared to deal with possible dicey situations.

When it's time to go home, you have to deal with the potential for drunken driving. Sobriety checkpoints and big penalties haven't stopped it in Korea. You might try to steer the group to a bar within walking distance.

As this all suggests, Korea is probably not the best place for a recovering alcoholic.

Speaking of driving, Koreans are some of the world's most aggressive drivers. Social good over individual good is baked into Korean culture, but you put a Korean in a car or truck or bus and he's a completely different critter. He might as well be the only driver on the road.

The good news is that Korean road safety has improved. In 2002 the fatality rate was 5.5 per 10,000 vehicles. In 2014 it had fallen by more than half, to 2.7 per 10,000 vehicles. But it's still nearly double the US's rate of 1.4 per 10,000, and four times Japan's 0.7 per 10,000.

The numbers tell one story, but here's what it was like for us.

Some of the other teachers' web sites talk about wild bus rides and insane taxi drivers. You might think this happens all the time. Well, maybe we were just lucky, but we had very few that were like that.

I did have one taxi driver who took some gut-wrenching risks passing on a 2-lane road to the airport. I guess he thought I was late for my flight. Several times, we saw bus drivers tailgate dangerously closely, then swing out and cut off cars that were going too slow for their tastes. I also watched one bus driver talk on his mobile phone most of the way from Seoul to Kangnung (Gangneung) -- about 3 hours! Fortunately, he was using a headset. And both of us rode with some "civilian" drivers who drove too fast and, shall we say, not very accurately.

But most of our taxi rides were no wilder than the ones we've had in Europe, for what that's worth. Most of the long distance bus rides were fairly calm. So while driving lunacy does happen, it's not as bad as it's sometimes made out to be. Wear your seat belt, and not just because Korean law requires it.

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