Health Care in South Korea

Keeping you safe

SummaryPolitical BackgroundCrime & KidnappingHealth CareCultural Considarations

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Travelers and expatriates face manageable risks in South Korea. Crime levels are low and common sense precautions should suffice. The risk from terrorism is also considered low. There is a significant presence of US service personnel and travelers may wish to avoid groups of these in bars and restaurants.

Health insurance is a must have to ensure full coverage. A national health insurance system (NHI) is compulsory for all citizens, and foreign expats will often be enrolled in the system. Those covered by the National Health Insurance system must pay a fixed premium, but do note that some chronic and/or pre-existing illnesses may not be covered by the National Heath Insurance system. Travelers are not covered. Health care in South Korea is of a good standard

The main concern is the risk of armed conflict with North Korea or DPRK. Technically still at war since the 1953 cease fire, the border between the two countries is a demilitarized zone (DMZ) and should be avoided. Relations tend to cool and thaw, but the likelihood of war by choice is low. The risk is that of a crisis spinning out of hand, or of a sudden collapse of the North which looks increasingly possible.

Political background

South Korea is a presidential republic with a system akin to that of the US. The president is elected directly and appoints the executive cabinet. Legislative power is vested in the National Assembly. Party politics tend to be divisive and can sometimes have a rough edge, but the overall system is by now democratic if elitist.

Corruption remains a problem and links between politics and big business behind the scenes tend to exert significant political influence.

Crime & kidnapping

The risk is low but of course common sense should be exercised. As in most countries the risk from violent crime is higher at night and in urban entertainment areas. Petty theft and pick pocketing occurs from time to time. Female travelers and expats should consider traveling in a group, especially after dark.

Health care

As one of Asia’s leading countries, South Korea has a high quality healthcare sector. There are ample public and private health facilities located throughout the country, and a wide range of services and treatments are available. There is a national medical insurance scheme through which all Korean nationals receive healthcare. Expatriates are also required to join the scheme, regardless of whether or not their company is Korean owned. Foreign visitors and expatriates are also entitled to hold private medical insurance plans, and this is crucial for tourists as they are exempt from the national medical insurance scheme and are required to personally meet any medical costs.

South Korean Healthcare System Overview
South Korea has one of the most modern and developed healthcare sectors in Asia. It has numerous medical facilities, both public and private, that provide first class levels of care and treatment. Medical staff are all highly trained and experienced, and the treatment and services available throughout the country are close to international standard. Foreign visitors and expatriates have unrestricted access to health facilities when treatment is necessary, and expatriates are required to join the national health insurance scheme shortly after their arrival in the country.

Healthcare in South Korea is dominated by the National Health Insurance Program (NHIP). All Korean citizens are required by law to join the scheme, and it ensures heavily subsidized healthcare treatment is available for members at public health facilities. Members of the scheme contribute through a social insurance tax reflective of their annual salary. Coverage also then extends automatically to other family members and dependents.

Foreign workers and expatriates are also legally required to join the scheme. On arrival in South Korea, expats must first apply for the Alien Registration Card before being eligible to apply for their NHIP card. The payment structure is slightly different for expats, as the employer will pay 50 percent of the health insurance tax and the expat the other 50 percent. When a foreign national requires treatment at a dentist or health facility, they are still required to pay a small consultation fee. One important point to note is that it can take a number of months to receive the Alien Registration Card, and during this time an expat is not covered by the scheme. It is therefore wise to consider purchasing a South Korea health insurance plan to ensure you are fully protected from the time you arrive.

Most medical facilities, particularly those in Seoul, will have an English-speaking doctor available to assist foreign nationals. Junior medical staff and nurses may not be able to speak English. If you require medical treatment, it is advisable to bring a Korean friend or colleague with you to ensure you receive the appropriate medical treatment. In addition, there are a growing number of international clinics that now cater to foreign expatriates. Staff at these clinics can all speak English although it should be noted that medical costs are much higher. Overall, hospitals and clinics are generally equipped with all the latest technology and hardware, and a majority of medical services are possible. One issue that might arise, however, is that of sanitation. Some hospitals do not practice good sanitation and may be quite dirty.

Similar to the international clinics but on a larger scale are South Korea’s network of private medical facilities. Private hospitals and clinics operate throughout the whole country, however, the majority of facilities are located in Seoul and Busan. There is little difference between the medical services and standard of treatment on offer from private and public facilities, although there are some notable exceptions. The first main difference is cost. Treatment at private facilities is not covered by the NHIP scheme and costs are therefore quite high. The other difference is clientele. Given the additional expenses, private facilities are most popular with expatriates and wealthy Korean nationals. This ensures that waiting times for specialist procedures are short. Korean citizens will typically only use private clinics or hospitals for treatment that is not covered by the NHIP scheme, such as treatment for chronic illnesses or diseases.

Despite the many positives of the South Korean healthcare system, there are a number of issues going forward that will impact on the country’s ability to continue to provide first class healthcare. South Korea has an aging population, with less people working to contribute to pensions and other public expenses such as healthcare. A higher percentage of older people also directly impacts on the provision of healthcare, placing strain and more burden on facilities and staff. Changes in wealth, living standards and social habits are all contributing to increases in chronic disease in South Korea. An estimated 25 percent of the population now suffer from a chronic illness, and the main contributor to this problem is the high percentage of the population that smoke. Tobacco related illnesses are by far the main cause of premature deaths in Korea.

Expatriates and visitors should be aware of the health risks associated with living in or visiting South Korea. As the country becomes more urbanized, pollution and sanitation have become an important issue. In addition to the air pollution that naturally develops across the country, South Korea is also affected by a seasonal “Yellow Dust” which consists of dust and sand particles blown over the peninsula from China. First time visitors to South Korea and East Asia in general may need to update or receive vaccinations prior to travel. While there are no major contagious illnesses or diseases to be aware of, incidents of Hepatitis A and Japanese encephalitis do occur from time to time. Hepatitis A is spread through food and water, while Japanese encephalitis is spread through the bite of a mosquito. Precautions against both of these diseases should be taken, particularly during the warm and humid summer months.

Cultural Considerations

Briefly on culture
To people at home within a given culture, there will be a set of norms and values which governs everyday life, often in an almost subconscious manner. Think of how people tend to interact back home: How are relations between age-groups, genders, colleagues, religious groups, employers and employees, citizens and state etc. usually defined? Then consider that these relationships and the norms and even rules which govern then are very familiar to you – indeed you will probably consider them almost natural. This is the effect of culture upon people living within a group.

But the world is a diverse place, and cultures are very different around the globe. To complicate matters further cultures are anything but static; indeed, by their very nature they are always in flux. A country will often be home to different cultures as well, although it may sometimes be possible to identify a preponderant culture within a country.

Cultural differences and travel security
When you travel to a country or an area with a significantly different culture from your own this may affect your safety. This effect may take several different shapes.

The most basic effect is that of simply being different, of sticking out, familiar to any tourist in the world: The local population has little trouble identifying you as a traveler, tourist or expat. This raises your profile and increases your vulnerability, especially to street crime and scams, which may be serious in high-risk countries. While probably difficult to avoid, this basic fact should always be borne in mind. You will be more exposed and have less instinctive understanding of your surroundings that would the case back home.

Examples of specifics: Locals laws and customs
There may be more specific effects as well. Local laws will reflect the local culture, and this can have a very direct effect, e.g. bans on specific products, behavior or rules affecting interaction between people. Classic examples include a ban on consumption of alcohol or drugs, limits on driving, bans on homosexuality or laws governing interaction between unmarried couples. Clearly local laws must be obeyed as they apply to all.

Health care and health insurance may also be affected. This is most often the case when it comes to how much practical support relatives are expected to supply at a hospital or clinic (e.g. food and basic care), or how much access family members can have to a hospitalized dependent.

But specific effects may also be subtle. As a foreigner, it is easy to break local customs unwarily, which may cause offense or resentment. This can be embarrassing of course; however, to transgress deeply held convictions e.g. of a political or religious nature may trigger hostility. Travelers and expats should always refrain from any political debates with locals, and should at least make themselves familiar with local customs and religious beliefs.

When it comes to religion specifically sensitivity may be high. If confronted with locals, it is best to express agreement with their stated convictions in a discussion. Most often it is not a problem to belong to a different major faith or denomination, but it may be. It is almost always a bad idea to confess to atheism if confronted by zealots.

Always remember that, even though you may disagree vehemently with elements of the local culture, you are the visitor. Do not try to convince locals of “the errors of their ways” and never, ever proselyte.