So, the other day Erin and I were in Seoul on one of our many “greasy breakfast” trips. We headed up to Itaewon, the foreigners’ district. It was early in the morning. The subway was mostly empty, and all the shops around the stations were shuttered. We took a different route than normal, up a truly mind-boggling series of escalators. About halfway to the surface, Erin grabbed my arm. "Hey, check that out!"
"Is that a guitar store?" I asked.
We were walking up to check it out when Erin had a startling realization. "Wait a minute. All of these are just sitting out."
"Yeah?" I said.
"Anybody could take them. I mean, the shop is closed and nobody's around except the people using the subway. And there's no barriers or locks or anything. All this is just sitting out. Sam... it's been sitting out all night!"
It was a startling realization.
But then South Korea is like that. It's not easy to find crime statistics on South Korea, but I can go by anecdotal evidence, and the travel advisories for visitors to the country. And these universally agree. Crime? Yeah... not really a thing here. I mean, the police don't even carry guns!
From what we can tell, the following involves the sum total of likely criminal activity you might face:
1) Be alert near the bars at night. Drunk people are rowdy and stupid sometimes, and have more adrenaline than sense. Note: Neither Erin nor I have ever had a problem like this, but we have been warned by some of our Korean friends. Although, it should be noted, a "bad situation" from our Korean friends' perspective may be something like 'drunk person stumbles into you and calls you a name, before having a nap on the sidewalk.' So take this one with a grain of salt.
2) Be alert in touristy areas of Seoul, such as Itaewon, Sinchon, Myeongdong, and Hongdae. If there are pickpockets or purse snatchers anywhere in the whole of Korea, they are here. Additionally, be alert on the beaches, especially if you have to leave valuables while you go swimming. IN GENERAL, the more touristy the area, the higher the danger. Note: Neither Erin nor I have ever had a problem with this either, but we can totally see it. All of these areas are so densely packed with people, especially oblivious tourists, that it would be a pickpocket's dream.
3) Be alert about the cheaper hotel rooms in Seoul. It is possible your room could get busted into while you're out enjoying the city. I don't want to give the wrong impression. this doesn't happen crazy amounts, but it can happen.
4) Be alert for people WHO HAVE NO BUSINESS BEHIND THE WHEEL OF A CAR, THE MANIACS! Ahem. The most common crime Erin and I have seen is drivers running red lights. At high speed. Inches from spattering pedestrians. Some South Koreans have a loose association with the rules of the road, and most of those assume that the car horn is "For letting the world know I'm about to do something stupid." So keep on your toes when crossing the streets, or walking in narrow alleys. If someone's honking at you, it's because you've got about 2.3 seconds to dive to the side before they put 2000 lbs of metal where you're standing.
The thing you'll notice about those, is #2 and 3 are both Seoul specific. Oh, other major tourist cities (such as Busan) have their problems, but for the most part, if you're out in the countryside of South Korea, crime might as well not exist. This is not to say it DOESN'T exist. It's just really unlikely. And ultimately, the safest thing a traveler can do is use common sense, be alert, and take basic precautions that they should really take anywhere. Erin and I have wandered in many of the major metropolitan areas of Korea, during the day and late at night, and we have never, ever felt unsafe or in danger (aside from when we were dodging drivers).
Which brings us back to our guitars.
Erin and I spent a minute just sitting there, staring at this display of musical instruments. There must have been thousands of dollars worth of merchandise just out in the open air, and nobody batted an eye. And this was near Itaewon, one of the touristy of tourist destinations. It was breathtaking.
And then, like everyone else, we went on with our day.