[WHY] Is it really safe to leave valuables lying around in Korea?
Leave a package on your doorstep in Korea and see what happens — nothing, it will still be waiting for you untouched a week later.
The idea that parcels can be left outside unattended without any risk in Korea isn't new, but the practice has increased dramatically during the Covid-19 pandemic as companies ditched direct deliveries.
Delivery workers no longer ring people’s doorbells and hand over packages. Instead, most e-commerce and logistics companies including Coupang, CJ Logistics, Hanjin Transport and Lotte Global Logistics have changed to a contact-free delivery system.
Simply leaving packages on people’s doorsteps means the delivery is finished, limiting unnecessary contact that might spread Covid-19.
Other countries have changed their delivery policies during the pandemic, but their solutions aren’t as simple as Korea.
Rather than directly delivering packages, Singapore’s SingPost now puts small items inside recipients’ letterboxes. If a package doesn’t fit, delivery workers ring the doorbell and tell people to collect their packages after they leave. If no one is there, the packages won’t be left on the doorstep, but will be delivered the next day.
But Koreans aren't worried that leaving a package outside for a few days might be a bit risky. In fact, parcels aren’t the only thing safe to leave lying around, with people often opting to save their seat in a cafe or restaurant by leaving their phone, laptop or wallet on the table while they go and order.
Leaving bags on the overhead racks on the subway is another thing people don't have to worry about, with petty theft considered to be extremely uncommon here.
In fact, the lack of theft in Korea has become so well known that YouTube is littered with thousands of videos showing social experiments where people leave out their valuables to see if it really is as safe as everybody says. Invariably, it is.
So, why do people rarely steal valuables in Korea?
To try and work out why petty theft is such a minor issue in Korea, some experts look to the country's recent history, especially the tendency of living in close-knit communities as recently as the 1970s and '80s.
Koreans used to have a close relationship with their neighbors and often lived with or near their extended family. Knowing almost everyone in the neighborhood meant that stealing something off someone’s porch or taking valuables at a public place was less likely because the chances of getting caught were high, and humiliation would follow.
“People [didn't steal] in the '70s and '80s even when there was no CCTV,” said Han Min, a professor teaching psychology at Woosong University and author of "Cultural psychology." “We frequently had power blackouts but people didn't care and would still leave their homes and rest outside with their neighbors.
“If blackouts were to happen in countries like the United States, stores would immediately be robbed."
Although people no longer live in close-knit communities, those characteristics tend to be passed on from generation to generation and still live within society today.
Some also say Korean psychology is based on a high level of trust in others.
Higher trust doesn’t mean that Koreans are gullible or blindly believe people, but that they believe doing good to others will make others do so in return. Because of this, people don't even consider the possibility that someone might try to steal their valuables, because it would never cross their mind to do so to somebody else.
“In psychology, we say that one's trust forms during their infancy," said Han. "Korean parents tend to be more hands-on than in other countries and this helps children build more trust toward their parents, which then influences them in the future to trust other people as well.”
Is it purely cultural and psychological?
No, people say there are also other reasons as well. Another factor that is known to play a role is the huge amount of surveillance cameras, or closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras, active in Korea.
There were 83,557 surveillance cameras in Seoul as of December 2021. Considering the city had a population of 9.83 million at that time, Seoul has 8.5 cameras to every 1,000 people.
According to U.K.-based market tracker Comparitech, that puts Seoul at No. 44 out of 150 cities globally. Surprisingly that's not that high on the list for number of cameras per person, but when looking at cameras per square mile, it jumps up to 11th place, with 331.94 cameras per square mile.
Delhi ranks first, followed by London and Chennai in India. Six of the remaining seven cities in the top 10 are in China.
"If something is lying on the ground, no one touches it," said Park Hee-bong, a professor teaching social science at Chung-Ang University and the author of "Social Capital." "One explanation is that Koreans have an overall understanding that people shouldn't touch others’ things and they also know that taking someone else's belongings and getting caught on CCTV could leave them with a huge fine."
Accessing surveillance camera footage is not particularly difficult in Korea. There are always surveillance cameras at stores, in building elevators and out on the street. If something is lost at a store or restaurant, people can ask the employee to check the surveillance cameras.
"Many Koreans live in apartments, which are safer for contact-free deliveries, and there is normally a lot of CCTV," said a spokesperson for a logistics company who wished to remain anonymous. "Even before the pandemic, about one-third of deliveries in Seoul were left on people's doorsteps because people living alone or dual-income households won't be there when delivery workers arrive."
Another logistics company said parcels do occasionally get lost or stolen, but the number is insignificant.
Surveillance cameras do help, but some experts say they are more effective at catching thieves than preventing crime.
“Theft and robbery in Korea has been decreasing in the past 10 years, but it's not because of CCTV preventing crime, it is because there are less people carrying around and using cash,” said Han Min-kyung, a professor teaching criminology at the Korean National Police University. “Now, the possible benefits of stealing valuables like wallets don't outweigh the cost and risk of being caught.”
“Theft and robbery is also declining in rural areas, where there is less CCTV.”
If I lose my belongings, is it easy to find them in Korea?
Not only is theft of valuables not seen as much of an issue, but people also tend to go to great lengths to try and reunite lost belongings with their owners.
There were 101,523 items handed in to Seoul Metro's lost and found center last year. Wallets were the most common item, making up for 24 percent. Mobile phones, bags and clothes followed.
Lost items are kept at the center for a week and then handed over to a local police station. Of the 101,523 items, 66,426, or 65 percent, were returned to their owners within that week.
"Our employees regularly collect items that are still lying around even when the subway arrives at the last stop, but there are a lot of passengers who bring lost items in themselves," said Yoon Kang-jae, a spokesperson for Seoul Metro. "Taking others' things, even if they've been left behind, breaks the Act on Embezzlement of Lost Articles, but the majority of people bring items to the lost and found because they think it’s the right thing to do and really want to help find the owner."
Providing compensation for people who find lost objects is another factor that motivates people to keep lost items safe and return them to the owner.
According to the Lost Articles Act, the owner of an item must pay 5 to 20 percent of the value of the item to the person who returned it to them.
While most people return valuables because they feel it is the right thing to do, they do have the legal right to go to court and claim their reward if they want to do so.
To what extent can people leave their valuables lying around?
People always say it’s safe to leave your possessions lying around in Korea, but the Korea JoongAng Daily wanted to reach out to some people living here to hear their experiences and thoughts.
One of them is 27-year-old Chae Ji-won. She ordered a pair of shoes from a U.S. website because she couldn't find the model in Korea. Getting the shoes shipped from the United States, the order took a long time and it was impossible to pin point an exact date for delivery.
Unfortunately for Chae, the parcel arrived while she was on vacation.
“Based on the parcel tracking information, it looked like an international order I made weeks ago was set to be delivered when I was still vacationing in Jeju Island,” said Chae. “I worried that the parcel might be stolen when I was away, but it was still there sitting in front of my apartment when I got home.”
Chae said the parcel sat in front of her door for a full day before she got home.
"I did think about calling a friend to pick up the package for me, but as it was only a day before I was set to land in Seoul, I figured it would be okay."
Finders keepers is a phrase not used in Korea that often, according to Park A-yeong, a graduate student in her 20s.
“I used to have a part-time job at an art museum ticket office, and so many people returned lost items they found in the bathroom or souvenir shop that we even had a designated lost-and-found bin,” said Park. “There were wallets, earphones, credit cards, someone’s makeup pouch and honestly the list goes on and on.”
Park Ju-yeon, an office worker in her 30s, had a similar experience.
“I had just moved and wrote the wrong delivery address for an order I placed online, so my parcel wasn’t at my house even though the tracking service said it was delivered,” said Park. “I realized I wrote the wrong address and went to the place to check, but my package wasn't there either.”
Park thought she had lost her parcel, but the person living at the address had taken the package to the apartment's security guard office.
"I went to check just in case, and the guard said there was a package a resident left at the office because it wasn't theirs," said Park. "He asked me my name and what I ordered to check it was mine and gave it back to me.”
So, does theft ever happen?
Theft tends to happen less in Korea, but that doesn’t mean the country is entirely safe.
There were 180,067 cases of theft reported to police in 2020. Among the total, 27,298 happened at stores, 1,557 at train stations and 540 on the subway.
Logistics companies don't disclose the number of their parcels that were lost or stolen, but there were 277 requests for compensation regarding deliveries to the Korea Consumer Agency (KCA) in 2021. Among them, stolen packages accounted for 95 cases, or 34.3 percent, the second-most frequent complaint.
The first on the list was parcel damage with 126 cases, or 45.5 percent.
There are bound to be more parcels that were actually stolen considering some people directly contact logistics companies instead of the KCA, but the number is still small considering there were 3.6 billion packages delivered in Korea last year.
An office worker living in southern Seoul surnamed Kim said she had experienced parcel theft in the past.
“I was living in a goshiwon back then, and deliveries were all kept in front of the goshiwon manager’s office,” said Kim, referring to a residential building with small individual rooms that are rented out. “The delivery tracking app said my parcel was delivered, but it was nowhere to be found so I asked the manager to check the CCTV and found my package.”
BY LEE TAE-HEE [email@example.com]