99,720 sq km (38,502 sq miles) excluding demilitarised zone.
49 million (2014).
491.8 per sq km.
Head of state:
President Park Geun-hye since 2013.
Head of government:
Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn since 2015.
220 volts AC, 60Hz. European-style plugs with two round pins are used.
South Korea can come across as inscrutable at first glance. It’s a land of stark contrasts and wild contradictions; a place where tradition and technology are equally embraced; where skyscrapers loom over ancient temples; and where the frantic pace of life is offset by the serenity of nature. The country’s unique customs and etiquette can seem like a trap laid for foreigners, but arrive with a smile and a respectful attitude and you will be welcomed with open arms by some of the friendliest folk on the planet.
Koreans are fiercely proud of their country, and with good reason. The Korean peninsula has a storied history and this colourful heritage is woven into the fabric of this land. The capital, Seoul, is home to a number of historic highlights, including the spectacular Joseon-era Gyeongbokgung Palace, “the great south gate” of Namdaemun and the eerie Seodaemun Prison – all tucked away amid gleaming offices, giant shopping centres, world-class restaurants and hipster bars.
The rest of the country is also littered with fortresses, temples and palaces. Visitors will enjoy the grassy burial mounds of ancient kings in Gyeongju, the Seokbulsa Temple in Busan, which has been carved out of a rock, and the infamous demilitarised zone, a biodiverse no-man’s-land separating South and North Korea. It is a scary place, where acres of barbed wire are patrolled by heavily-armed guards on both sides, yet the tension is so trumped up it feels like you’ve stumbled onto a Hollywood film set.
But it’s not all about history. When it comes to nature, South Korea is wonderfully diverse, with spectacular national parks, remote sandy beaches, hot spring islands and rugged mountain peaks. Gastronomes are well catered for, too, but you may have to open your mind before your mouth; local specialities include kimchi (pickled cabbage) and makgeolli (rice wine).
South Korea can sometimes seem like the most foreign place on Earth; an unfathomable destination of curious customs, strange food and jarring paradoxes. Ultimately, that’s what makes it so exciting.
Last updated: 19 October 2015
The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. ‘We’ refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
Crime against foreigners is rare but there are occasional isolated incidents. While most reported crimes are thefts, there have been some rare cases of assaults, including sexual assaults, particularly around bars and nightlife areas.
Take extra care of passports, credit cards and money in crowded areas and be careful in areas visited by foreigners, like Itaewon. Take care when travelling alone at night and only use legitimate taxis or public transport.
For emergency assistance, call 112 for police (an interpretation service is available during working hours) and 119 for ambulance and fire. The Korean National Police operates a 24-hour, 7 day a week central interpretation centre where foreigners can report crimes telephone: 112).
Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the Korean peninsula has been divided by a de-militarised zone (DMZ) separating the DPRK and the Republic of Korea. Peace has been maintained under an Armistice Agreement.
The level of tension on the Korean peninsula can change with little notice. It increased after the sinking of the South Korean Navy Ship Cheonan and an artillery attack against Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, when DPRK carried out two missile tests in 2012, after a nuclear test in 2013 and during regular South Korean-US military exercises.
On 20 August 2015, an exchange of artillery fire was reported between the DPRK and Republic of Korea in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). There are no reported casualties. Local media reports suggest that a small number of residents near the western border have been moved temporarily. If you’re in the area, you should follow the advice of the local authorities.
Civil emergency exercises
The South Korean authorities normally hold nationwide civil emergency exercises on the 15th day of the month, eight times a year (not January, February, July or December). Sirens are sounded, transport stopped and some people are asked to take shelter in metro stations or basements. Shelters in Seoul are marked with a special symbol. Participation by foreign nationals in the exercises is not obligatory but you should familiarise yourself with the procedures and check local announcements for further exercises.
You’ll need an International Driving Permit to drive in South Korea. Make sure you have fully comprehensive insurance.
Car and motorbike drivers are presumed to be at fault in accidents involving motorcycles or pedestrians. Criminal charges and heavy penalties are common when accidents result in injury, even if guilt is not proved. Watch out for motorcycles travelling at speed on pavements.
Taxi drivers tend to speak little or no English. Have your destination written in Korean, if possible with a map.
In 2012 there were 5,392 road deaths in South Korea (source: Department for Transport). This equates to 10.8 road deaths per 100,000 of population and compares to the UK average of 2.8 road deaths per 100,000 of population in 2012.
Older (non-3G) phones bought outside South Korea will not normally work in the country, and fitting foreign phones with local SIMs (e.g. to avoid roaming fees) is not usually possible.