Welcome to South Korea
The South Korea Destination Guide will provide a historic overview, scholarships, health and safety tips and identity-specific resources to ensure students feel prepared with insight and resources for their global experience in South Korea. The information shared below is a bird eye’s view and meant to provide some country-specific context. We encourage students to conduct further research and chat with relevant points of contact including advisors, program leaders, international student services at the host campus, internship coordinators or peers who have traveled to South Korea, to gain a greater understanding of their host country and/or city.
The Republic of Korea, also known as South Korea or simply Korea, is an East Asian country and the 25th most populous country in the world. Korea was declared independent from Japan on August 15th, 1945. After the end of the Korean War in 1953, the peninsula was divided into North and South and the countries have maintained a tense relationship since then. In recent years, South Korea has experienced exponential economic growth and a boom in the technology sector. Korea is known for its unique combination of embracing innovation and modern technology while maintaining the importance of its traditions and history.
The official language is Korean, although English is widely taught in junior high and high school. 83% of the country’s population lives in an urban area, with the largest population being in the capital, Seoul. Many students have been introduced to Korea through K-pop aka Korean pop culture which has rapidly grown in popularity around the world over the past decade. South Korea is a vibrant destination offering students the opportunity to experience everything from robust metro areas to scenic natural wonders!
Cities & Education
South Korea hosts approximately 140,000 international students annually and this number has been growing steadily over the past several years. There have been major investments made in education and research in Korea, which has led to its economic growth and popularity as a destination for international students, particularly those interested in the tech sector. Several universities in South Korea have expanded their campuses in the past few years to accommodate growing numbers of students.
Seoul, Korea’s capital, is consistently ranked as a top city for students who are drawn to its fast-paced environment, modern architecture, bustling social scene and K-pop culture. There are nearly 40 universities in this fast-paced city including popular institutions for international students like Yonsei University and Seoul National University. Living in the hustle and bustle of Seoul offers advanced public transportation options which make it a breeze to take in the many sites, such as Gyeongbokgung Palace and the Myeong-dong shopping and dining district.
Busan, Korea’s second-largest city is on the end of the Korean Peninsula. Compared to Seoul, Busan is much less touristy and has a more relaxed pace, although there is still plenty to see and do! The picturesque port in Busan is one of the busiest in the world and the city’s beaches and markets attract many visitors. Pusan National University and Dong-A University are both located in Busan and support a growing student community.
Daejeon, in South Korea’s central region, is home to 18 universities and is a major hub for technology and innovation, earning the nickname “Asia’s Silicon Valley.” Daejeon attracts students who are interested in studying or doing an internship in a city that celebrates advancements in STEM. Universities in Daejeon include the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.
Events & Tourism
Students living in South Korea have the opportunity to take part in festivals and cultural events throughout the year. From the Jinju Lantern Festival to the New Years festival, Seollal - there is no shortage of chances to witness Korean traditions. Festivals take place all over the country and each region has its own unique set of festivities. Attending local festivals is a great way to learn about local history - and try authentic cuisines.
South Korea offers a diverse collection of sites to take in in both urban and natural settings including 14 UNESCO World Heritage Sites! Four are located in Seoul including Changdeokgung, a 15th century palace. The N Seoul Tower located on Namasan mountain provides sweeping views of Seoul and shows just how impressive the city really is.
Gyeongju, an ancient city, is known as a “museum without walls,” and features preserved architectural structures and thousands of artifacts. Gyeongju was the capital of the former kingdom of Silla, which was one of the longest-running dynasties in all of Asia. This stunning historical site is a major destination for visitors and locals alike.
For those who seek natural wonders, Seoraksan National Park is home to the third-highest peak in Korea. Seoraksan includes over 200 miles of preserved land - making the hiking, biking and nature strolling possibilities endless.
Check out the article below, “5 Things You Must Do in South Korea” written by a Diversity Abroad scholarship recipient for more tips!
Diversity & Inclusion Climate
South Korea is a largely homogenous country and historically, this has presented many challenges for mixed-race Koreans. Known as members of “multicultural families,” Koreans with at least one parent who is not fully ethnically Korean continue to experience discrimination in Korea. Recent policies have been enacted in an attempt to support multicultural families and address the economic inequities they have faced. This is a start; however, multicultural and multiracial Koreans report feeling “othered” and are often assumed to be foreigners.
Most Koreans interact only with other Koreans on a day-to-day basis and visitors often report feeling like they stand out. This can vary depending on the city and whether or not you are in a rural versus urban location. Generally speaking, visitors will be easily identified as being foreign - this can be especially true for people of color. Oftentimes, local communities in Korea will have only been exposed to people of color through the media and this can lead to stereotypes and expectations about these populations.
LGBTQIA+ individuals are legally protected from discrimination in Korea, although same-sex marriage is not recognized and public awareness of issues facing LGBTQIA+ individuals is relatively low. Only recently have LGBT communities been represented in pop culture and media in South Korea. While there is still progress to be made in Korean society as it relates to full inclusion of the LGBTQIA+ population, there is strong support for laws that specifically protect these communities and visibility has increased in the past several years.
For more additional, identity-specific information about South Korea visit the Diversity & Inclusion Guides to South Korea.
Data acquired via the CIA.gov World Factbook
51,835,110 (July 2020 est.)
Korean, English (widely taught in elementary, junior high, and high school)
Protestant 19.7%, Buddhist 15.5%, Catholic 7.9%, none 56.9% (2015 est.)
Note: many people also carry on at least some Confucian traditions and practices
Immigration & Emigration
South Korea has historically maintained strict immigration policies. In the 1990s, Korea experienced a rapidly decreasing birth rate, which led to a shortage of working aged Korean citizens, and many jobs that were unable to be filled. This led thousands of migrant workers arriving in Korea, primarily from China. Although the South Korean government claims to be welcoming to immigrants, the government has only recently begun to enact legislation that protects foreign-born workers from discrimination and abuse.
Increased economic development in Korea’s major cities led to many young Koreans leaving rural areas for these cities over the past several decades. According to cultural traditions followed in rural Korean areas, the oldest son of the family remains in the rural hometown to care for eldery parents. However, since so many young Koreans have moved, this caused a rise in the number of international marriages which has contributed to increased immigration rates. There are various issues of equality and safety related to these marriages and the number of new international marriages has decreased over the past several years.
Today, approximately 3.5% of the population in Korea was born outside of Korea.
Staying Healthy & Safe in South Korea
You cannot always predict everything that may occur during your time abroad, but taking the proper measures to ensure your health and safety in South Korea will lessen the risk of health and safety issues.
One recommendation from the State Department is registering in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which allows you to register your trip with the local embassy or consulate which can provide support should you need it.
At Diversity Abroad, we acknowledge that experiences can vary by identities and others’ perceptions of them. To access identity-based resources about South Korea visit the Diversity & Inclusion Guides to South Korea.
South Korea has a state-run healthcare system overseen by the Ministry of Health and Welfare. South Korean hospitals and medical providers offer both modern Western medicine and more traditional treatments - patients have the choice of which they would like to receive. Visitors can typically get medical attention for much lower out-of-pocket costs than in the U.S. It is important to know what the process is for your specific program when it comes to doctor visits and emergency health care.
South Korea is generally considered safe for tourists and students granted you follow standard precaution and guidelines provided by your host institution and/or program. There are often areas of town that should be avoided - take the time to figure out where these areas are located. Although tensions are consistently present with North Korea, most Koreans do not alter their day-to-day routines due to threats from the North.
Pickpocketing can happen in city centers and sites that are attractive to tourists. There are many giveaways that can signal someone is a tourist from accent to something as subtle as mannerisms and the way one walks. The goal is not to mask that you are a visitor, but to protect your belongings and ensure you do not fall victim to theft. We recommend following these general tips:
- Be aware of your surroundings
- Leave valuable items at home whenever possible and only travel with your necessities, this includes when you head to the beach! Only bring what is necessary
- Avoid being flashy or careless with valuable items
- Ensure your bags and pockets are tight and completely zipped
- Have a travel partner when possible, avoid going out after dark alone
119: Fire, Emergency, Ambulance
Funding & Scholarship Opportunities
There are many scholarships to fund your study abroad experience in South Korea. Here is a list of Diversity Abroad scholarships available for study in this country:
For more scholarships, visit our Scholarships page.