So THIS happened not too long ago. And since it was a fairly violent attack, full of bloody photos and breathless descriptions, we thought it might be a good idea to address an issue that is pretty important for travelers anticipating a trip to South Korea: safety. And I'll do this by telling you a story. Erin and I like to exercise... mainly because we don't like being egg shaped. And one of our favorite ways to do this is at a nearby soccer field. The stadium boasts a half kilometer running track along its outer edge. As long as there isn't a game on, everyone and anyone is welcome to use it (including fat westerners who seem constantly out of breath).
Now, for obvious reasons, our schedule doesn't let us use the track during the day. So we tend to head out in the wee hours of the morning, or later in the evening... in other words, when it's dark out.
The track has fantastic floodlights to brighten up any game, but the city doesn't turn them on for the joggers. In fact, the stadium doesn't have any lights at all most of the time. Erin and I have gotten used to this. The pitch black soccer field is a big, echoey thing, and the few other exercisers are little black specks scattered along the track, barely visible in the gloom. It's almost like having the place to ourselves.
But the other day, heading for a jog before Erin went to work, we paused at the stadium's entrance and had a moment of cognitive dissonance. The early morning air was eerily silent, almost breathless. Without lights, the gate became an ink-black well where anyone and anything could be hiding. And just inside, I knew a whole stadium squatted in the night, full of endless shadows, waiting for us. It suddenly felt like a bad idea to go in there.
This was the heart of a city, a deeply urban setting. And we were standing in front of a big, dark, creepy stadium where anyone could jump us and (more importantly) no one would see. In Milwaukee, no way would I go in there. I'm not stupid. I don't need to get mugged.
But the shocking thing about this sudden awareness, as we stood staring at the entrance, was how it had never occurred to us. This was South Korea. We'd been coming here for months, and I'd never before considered that the stadium might seem scary in another context. Because I knew that the most dangerous thing in there was a granny on her morning constitutional.
Now, obviously, this country is not crime free. The US envoy would have had a nice, leisurely brunch, otherwise. But it's rare enough that Erin and I have become spoiled. When there is some kind of incident, everybody talks about it. It's a surprise, a reminder that there are crazy people in the world willing to break all social boundaries.
These incidents are often doubly shocking because South Korean media is otherwise free of the kind of depressing news that dominates America... the constant stabbings, shootings, robberies, muggings, and assaults. It just doesn't happen here. Even simple theft is so rare, I could leave my laptop in a coffee shop, and ten minutes later find a random stranger chasing me down to return it.
Now, to travelers coming to South Korea, I don't want to give you a false sense of security. You can still be a victim of a crime. We've discussed some of the kinds of things that are most common in a previous post. But after this last incident, I felt like a reminder was in order.
South Koreans were shocked at the attack on the US envoy, because such crimes are ridiculously rare. This is a truly, startlingly safe place to visit or to live, to the point I sometimes have trouble remembering what it was like to be afraid of the night. And that's a heck of an accomplishment for any country.