I was recently asked a seemingly simple question, that would appear to fall well within my professional area of expertise: Is it safe to attend the 2018 Olympics in South Korea?
My initial response, with nary a hint of hesitation, was: Of course, South Korea is a safe and stable country, with a robust economy, operating under the rule of law. Neither street crime, which was a concern surrounding the 2016 Rio Olympics, nor political unrest, which could be a concern during the 2022 Beijing games, are safety issues for the 2018 Olympics.
It gradually dawned on me, however, that the question is more complicated than those facts. Why? The 2018 Olympics (February 9 – 25) aren’t just taking place in South Korea; they’re taking place in Pyeongchang, a city just 50 miles from the border with North Korea.
That’s the question: Could North Korea impact the 2018 Olympics’ safety? Might that country’s status-seeking leader Kim Jong-un use the nearby 2018 Olympics to make a political or military statement during an event with guaranteed worldwide attention? The recent history of the conflict between South and North Korea shows it’s possible: When South Korea last hosted the Olympics, in 1988, North Korea refused to participate and blew up a South Korean jet 10 months before the games began.
Given Kim’s unpredictability and his penchant for grandiose gestures, safety is a valid concern for the 2018 Olympics. While I’m reasonably abreast of recent news and South Korea safety for travel, I’m not a political scientist. And when it comes to predicting how Kim Jong-un might or might not use the games to burnish his image as the leader of a nuclear super power, few guesses carry particular weight.
Weightier are the perspective and recommendations of the U.S. State Department, which has published a webpage dedicated to the 2018 Olympics. Here’s what the Department advises in the Safety and Security section:
For most visitors, South Korea is a very safe country. Common crimes occur more frequently in major metropolitan areas, tourist sites, and crowded markets. Visitors should take routine safety precautions, pay attention to surroundings, and report any concerns to local police. Violent crime is not common, but stay alert and be cautious in crowded entertainment, nightlife, and shopping districts…
There is a section devoted to North Korea on the Olympics page, but it’s limited to warning that, since September 2017, U.S. passports are not valid for travel to North Korea. The State Departments notes nothing about potential North Korean disruptions of the games.
And so, from no less an authority than the U.S. State Department: There’s no special reason to avoid the 2018 Olympics in South Korea.
Reader Reality Check
Do you have qualms about attending the games in South Korea? Comment below.
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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.