So a little while ago, Grrrl Traveler rented a car for a five hour road trip, and came back with these ten observations about driving in Korea.
The most relevant one:
You need either an international driver's license, or a Korean driver's license, to drive in Korea.
Fortunately, getting a Korean driver's license isn't too difficult, actually. Simon and Martina from Eat Your Kimchi (and aren't their early videos cute, compared to the polished stuff they make now) go through how to get one from a driver's examination center. The Constant Crafter also describes that process.
Fortunately for you if you're Seoul based, the Seoul Global Center makes it even easier than it was before: the one in Itaewon, or the one by City Hall, will take you through it pretty easily.
You'll need a little cash, your alien registration card, your passport, a few passport size photos, and your driver's license from your home country.
The other thing Grrrl Traveler got right, is that GPS is hella useful here. Seoul has TONS of roads. Apparently you can pay a lot more for a GPS that speaks to you in English... but to save the dough, it just takes a while to get used to reading the GPS visually, and tuning out the Korean until your listening is good enough to make sense of it.
Well, readers, after getting married, Wifeoseyo and I got a car, and after getting it, I drove to work, about a thirty-five minute drive (if traffic is light), for ten weeks. We've also driven out of town, to various places in the nearby provinces, and as far as Gyeongju, in the six months or so we've owned the car.
So here are my own observations about driving in Seoul:
1. Driving in cities is just batshit, period: if you lived in a small or medium-sized Canadian town, and moved to NYC or LA, you'd say "Americans can't drive" just as surely as you would say "Koreans can't drive" if you moved to Seoul instead. If you move to Seoul from a small or medium sized town, never forget that some of the things that are culture-shocking you are not about Korean culture, but about urban culture. City driving is nuts, compared to driving in the towns and countryside, and the number of cars you come across inevitably increases the chance you'll meet some dumbass drivers, or some jerk-ass drivers. Don't go saying "Koreans can't drive" without figuring that in.
2. Like dating, driving follows different logic in different countries. For people who always drove, or dated, in one driving/dating climate, the way it's done makes sense, for that context. Take someone from one context and put them in another, and things get sketchy. It's not that aegyo doesn't make sense in the context of Korean dating, but it doesn't make sense to this Canadian. Same with driving: put a Korean who learned to drive in Korea on Vancouver's streets, and that stereotype that Asians can't drive makes sense, not because Asians can't drive, but because they're driving by a different set of rules.
I've spent a little time in other countries, and they follow different logics in different places, too: in Canada, honking the horn most often means "I really don't like what you did." (not for kinda: only for really) in the parts of China I visited, they usually meant, "I see you there, but I can't, or won't slow down for you." In Vietnam the horn just meant, "Aay, buddy! I'm here." In Korea, honking the horn means either "I don't like what you did" or "Move along, buddy: let's go."
So while I have almost ten years of driving experience in Canada, I had to learn how to drive in Korea. If I drove the same way I did in Canada, I'd hesitate and shoulder-check myself right off the road. Once again: it's easy to say "Koreans can't drive" it takes a bit more effort to figure out how Koreans do drive, and roll with it. And you have to. If you follow the rules from back home, YOU'LL be the one who's making the mistakes, because you don't fit in.
3. Lines on the road: One of the biggest difference between the way Korean drivers handle themselves on the road, and the way Canadians do, is how we abide by the lines painted on the road. See, Canadians are sticklers for the road signs and the lines on the road much more than Korean drivers in the city, who straddle lanes more often. On the other hand, Canadians expect all drivers to follow those painted lines and signs so carefully that they don't pay as much attention to what the other drivers on the road are doing. People on Korean roads, for the most part, are much more aware of what the other cars on the road are doing, because one of them might weave into their lane at any time. Anticipation here is much better.
Plus: Koreans know the dimensions of their cars way better, and can park their cars in mad tiny spaces.
4. Buses are scary: Not just because they're so darn big, but because they move in and out of lanes. The right lane is always a wildcard, because there are taxis, scooters, and buses dodging in and out. Pick the middle or left lane.
Anybody who's lived here for a while knows that bus drivers in Seoul (I can't speak for out of the city) are way better than they used to be, as are bus lanes. It's much less often I have to do that bus-driver drunk-walk to the back of the bus, where it looks like I'm off my gourd because I'm compensating for so many changes in speed and direction from the bus driver.
However, when a bus wants into your lane, it's still scary. Every time.
5. Bikers are even scarier: See, the bus drivers? They've been trained to drive their buses, and they drive all day, every day, and many of them have been bus drivers for years. Bikers? Many buy their bikes because that's all they can afford, often it's the first road vehicle they've ever owned.
So you get these bikes, which can weave in and out between cars, driven by drivers who aren't as experienced at reading the road and anticipating traffic. When they're bobbing to the front of the line up at a red light, that's alright. When they're on the sidewalk, that sucks for pedestrians, but in my car, it doesn't affect me. But when we're all in motion, and they're still popping in and out of lanes, it's scary as hell, because they appear out of nowhere, and when it's car vs. bike, the biker loses, and I really don't want a careless biker plastering himself across MY hood.
6. People in expensive cars with dark tinted windows are the biggest assholes: Yep. People in small cars are more likely to be driving the first vehicle they've owned, and thus less attentive/aware, because of that inexperience, so you've got to be careful around them, but people in expensive cars - the Ssangyong "I'm A Big Deal," the Daewoo "Freud," the Hyundai "Long Car Important Driver," and all the imports with dark tinted windows know that, because of the way car insurance works here, people REALLY don't want to have even a tiny finder-bender with a really expensive car. A lot of owners of those cars drive with the sense of entitlement that comes of knowing other drivers don't want to touch them, because they'll get the short end of any kind of accident. You are likely to get cut off, or have your lane invaded by an inattentive driver of a cheap car, but you're more likely to be intentionally, brazenly cut off or around, or nearly hit by the yellow-light-running, impatient daring of an expensive car.
7. There's really, really no need to drive a car into town. None. Parking, traffic, traffic, parking, parking, traffic, traffic, parking, parking, traffic, parking, and gas prices. Only if you really need to. Given that Seoul has one of the best subway and bus systems in the world, you almost never do.
8. The farther you are from subway stations, the more fun, varied and interesting the city becomes. But because driving in Seoul is such a pain, I recommend bicycles. Folding bicycles fit nicely on subways, there are a few shops near Hongdae, and a few near Apgujeong, where you can get a folding bicycle for less than 500 000 won. It's worth paying the extra for being able to carry it more easily on a bus or a subway.
9. You've got to assert yourself... but take some time getting used to how that's done. What do I mean? People don't give you space on the road: you have to take your space. This is done by indicating with your car - nosing in, or drifting partway into the lane - so that people know where you're going to go, before moving all the way into your space. It's similar to how you can help people not bump into you when you're walking in a crowd, by setting your shoulders in the direction you're walking. The turn signal helps, but you've got to take your space, and indicate that you want it. Nobody gives it to you. Spend some time driving more cautiously on the roads, to see how other drivers do this, before getting too assertive.
10. I think I know why the Car on Pedestrian Death Rate is so High - There are countries that have more traffic accidents per 100 cars or 1000 drivers than Korea, but Korea's usually first or second in car-pedestrian fatalities. And it's because people tackle side-roads and lanes near apartment blocks and pedestrian areas, where kids play, with the same "Look at my big car" entitlement, aggressiveness, and impatience, as they tackle big thoroughfares where nary a pedestrian steps.
So that's what I have to say after half a year of driving in Seoul. It's been fun so far, it can be stressful, but for the most part, Seoul's infrastructure is pretty good. Driving here will improve your awareness and anticipation, by necessity, because anything can happen, and will. And sometimes, you just have a "stupid driver day" when every dumb driver on the road seems to come across your path. Whee!