I think the title of this post deserves a disclaimer. How Driving in Korea is Like the Mob (as I understand it from The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, and The Godfather trilogy).

I have a friend who says that driving in Korea is directly correlated to your level of happiness with this country. If you don’t drive, then you are not as likely to get out and about, which leaves you bored at home. While taxis and subways are great resources for exploring, there is an empowering feeling from driving yourself around this bustling city. I feel enormous pride each time I successfully drive somewhere new. I return home with war stories and feel like I’ve been given a second chance at life simply because I survived. I’ve driven myself around some big cities in the US (Dallas, Atlanta, and, less successfully, San Antonio), but none of those experiences compare with traveling around Seoul. In the midst of traffic the other day, I thought of these similarities and thought they were the best way to describe driving in Seoul!

5 Ways Driving in Korea is Like the Mob:

 1. Rules are made to be broken, but some lines you never cross. The driving rules aren’t very different from the US. Red, yellow, and green lights. Don’t cross solid lines. Don’t speed. Don’t run over pedestrians. There are lanes designated with blue lines that are only for buses. Those are the rules; however, most of those rules are constantly broken. Especially running red lights. If the light is red, but there is a chance to go, then the Korean drivers will not hesitate to go on through the intersection. However, there is one rule that I never see a Korean driver break. Unprotected left turns are not allowed; you must have a green arrow to turn left or a special sign designating it is allowed. Running a red light? No problem! Turn left without a green arrow? NEVER! I try to be very observant of what rules the Koreans break and then just follow their lead. It’s worked okay so far. I think some Americans could easily become confused about the rules of the road. Simply because some rules are abandoned, does not mean that there are no rules.

Driving 22. You’re on my turf now. There’s a distinctive hierarchy of drivers in Korea. Taxi and bus drivers are the bosses and everyone else needs to show some respect. I will cut other drivers off in a heartbeat, but I never attempt to do so to a bus or a taxi. I tried once or twice when I was still learning my way around; I was quickly reminded of my place. Those guys have years of experience, authority, and driving skills that I will never compare to. They rule the road, and I meekly let them swerve in front of me and never say a word. However, I have much less patience for the pedestrians in my neighborhood. They will walk in the center of the road and always pretend to be oblivious to the fact that I am trying to drive by. They apparently feel they own the road when walking; maybe they are all taxi drivers on their way to their car?

3. The police turn a blind eye. The police are not an omni-present force in Korea as they are in the US. We’ve only seen a car pulled over once, which is very disproportionate to the number of rules we see broken. The police that I have seen don’t really appear to be monitoring traffic. It seems that the policy is “live and let live.” They will step in if it gets bad enough, but otherwise, they leave all these rule breaking drivers alone.

4. You have to take chances to get ahead. If you are the only one playing by the rules, the only one who never puts your needs ahead of others, then you aren’t going to last long here. You cannot be weak in this game; you will not be handed what you need. I quickly learned that I was never going to be able to get to the turns or exits I needed if I waited for the perfect opening. There is no perfect opening. Using your turn signal is a sign of weakness and other drivers will speed up to ensure that you do not get in front of them. You’ll never get a chance if you don’t take a chance.

5. Watch your back. Being aware of the road and other drivers is important anywhere, but even more in Korea. The Korean drivers can pull some very unexpected tricks, and you always need to ready to swerve, slam on the brakes or both. They will stop in the middle of the road, or there will suddenly be a broken down car (there are very few shoulders to pull over on). There is always someone crossing five lanes of traffic to catch an exit, or a motorbike weaving through the smallest gaps between the cars.

I have never seen driving maneuvers like I have in Korea. I have been sitting at a stop light and the car behind me will use the turn lane to pass everyone else and put themselves at the front of the line. I have seen people driving in the right lane and suddenly make a u-turn across 4 lanes of traffic. I think most people would experience intense road rage at some of the driving here, but more often than not, I am too shocked to be angry. I just stare, choose to be amused rather than angry, and smile at the constant reminders that I’m somewhere new.

Want to learn more about my life in Korea? Check out 7 Ways Life in Korea is like Teaching Preschool!



  1. Reply
    Jessica 9 November, 2013

    Just reading your post has made my heart race, raised my blood pressure and has given me a mini panic attack! !! What did I learn from this post? It would be pointless to buy a brand new car to drive around Korea because there is a pretty good chance it will look like a beater within a month! Miss you! ! Drive as safe as the Mob lets you!

    • Reply
      Bethany 9 November, 2013

      Sorry to stress you out, Jess! Our car is a beater (aka a hooptee), so I don’t worry about scratches. It’s pretty ugly, but it keeps up with the Koreans, and that’s all I need!

  2. Reply
    knitwgrace 9 November, 2013

    I LOVE this! It is SO so true. And for some reason I love driving in the city? Am I a future mobster?

    • Reply
      Bethany 9 November, 2013

      Thanks! And being mom to all your cute kiddos makes you tougher than any mobster!

  3. Reply
    Karen 9 November, 2013

    I was just reading this and Caroline comes up and says, “Mom! That’s Ms. Bethany! Is she on the ‘puter?” So now you’re famous 😉 This was a great post. I agree wholeheartedly, and I love how you write. Just sayin’…

    • Reply
      Bethany 9 November, 2013

      Thank you, Karen! All I wanted was to be famous in Caroline’s eyes :)

  4. Reply
    Fw 9 November, 2013

    Two reason why there ate no garbage buns around Seoul:
    1) to prevent bombs being planted by North Korea. It’s not really that much of a threat but it has happened in the past.
    2) garbage bags are super expensive in Korea, that’s why you’ll never find a bin outside of restaurants and such. The owner doesn’t want to pay for your trash. The garbage bags have a tax prebuilt in them and each area has a specific colour of bag to use.

    • Reply
      Bethany 9 November, 2013

      Yeah, we have to buy special colored bags, and different colors for food, recyclable, and other waste. I hadn’t heard about the trash can bombs before; thanks for sharing your info!

  5. Reply
    Anonymous 10 November, 2013

    If you think Korea is bad, try driving in the Philippines where there’s no rules. Easy for me to say because I’ve driven there numerous times and I find it like sitting in a driver seat of a Nascar.

    • Reply
      Bethany 10 November, 2013

      Yes, I have a friend who mentioned that the Philippines are much worse. I would probably be terrified the entire time! Buckle up and stay safe!

  6. Reply
    Anonymous 10 November, 2013

    I hated the traffic in Seoul..and don’t forget the motorcyclists who ignore every traffic rule and when they can’t get thru the traffic just go up onto the sidewalks nearly killing you if you are a walking pedestrian. Oh and the smells..what in the world were all the horrible smells you would come upon every 50 ft. It seemed? Lol

    • Reply
      Bethany 10 November, 2013

      Oh my goodness, the motorcycles. Do you know that weird game when you are walking down the street, and someone is walking toward you, you turn to the left and they go to their right, and you do that awkward back and forth? I did that with a motorcycle who was driving down the sidewalk the other day. I finally just stood still and whimpered as he drove around me! And, yes, the smells. No way to describe them; I just call that fragrance “Korea.”

  7. Reply
    jenlee 10 November, 2013

    My husband is Korean and I agree with this. But the thing is Korean highway have CCTV everywhere. So, if you had broken the law and didn’t notice it. You’ll get a mail from the government asking you to pay for illegal parking or speeding. They run into red lights when they know there’s no one crossing the pedestrians. Trust me KOREA have the most strict policy on the road. and korean drivers usually wants to go ppali ppali. Hehe

    • Reply
      Bethany 11 November, 2013

      I have noticed that the drivers know which lights to run; they know where the speed traps are and slow down momentarily. I just follow their lead and haven’t been ticketed yet! I hope this strategy keeps working! :) Saying “pali pali” to a taxi driver resulted in the most terrifying/exhilarating ride of my life!

  8. Reply
    Kelly 10 December, 2013

    I have the opposite stance on cutting off cab drivers. They’ve got no problem cutting me off so I’ve got absolutely no problem cutting them off. Bus drivers, that’s a different story. They scare me.

    • Reply
      Bethany 10 December, 2013

      It makes me happy to know that there’s someone who standing up to those bullying taxi drivers. Keep it up!

  9. Reply
    Lucy jang 1 April, 2016

    I have been working here at K-16 for a month now and the sign you uploaded was very familiar. Most of all I totally agree with you about driving in Korea and enjoy reading your blog with constantly nodding.

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