Jun 17

Owning and Driving a Car in Korea: Am I Crazy, Brave, or Stupid?

Owning and driving a car in Korea

“I thought it was an April Fool’s joke at first,” my friend confided in me. “I didn’t really think you’d do it!” another exclaimed. To be honest, if someone had told me six months ago that I would own and drive a car in Korea, I would have laughed in their face. Noooooooo way, I would have said. But it’s funny how our opinions change with time. After all, a few years ago I never would have imagined even living in Korea.


It all happened so fast. I had taken on some extra responsibilities on the other side of town and was spending an inordinate amount of time battling ajummas for seats on buses. I began doing some research into how I could drive a car in this country, and discovered how ridiculously easy it actually is. I went test driving cars on a sunny Sunday afternoon with a helpful man who spoke fluent English. Within a few hours I had purchased an old clunker; I dubbed her Betty White, because she’s old but totally awesome. She seats seven, my lucky number and a perfect number for road trips.

Owning and driving a car in Korea

I am allowed to legally drive in Korea with my International Driver’s License, even though I have absolutely no idea what the official traffic laws of this country are. As insane as that is, it’s not really a big deal because the laws here tend to be viewed more as suggestions anyway. People will actually get angry at you if you are obeying a law and it inconveniences them. I get behind the wheel and feel like I’m on a bumper car carnival ride;  it’s both terrifying and exhilarating.


Driving in Korea is like being on the road with a bunch of reckless 16 year old boys. They speed, they swerve, they cut you off, and they drive like they’re trying to impress a girl with how invincible they are. I don’t think I’ve ever even seen a Korean look over their shoulder before switching lanes. When I first started driving here I experienced an identity crisis: should I continue to drive with manners, waving people to go in front of me and using my blinkers like a civilized person? Or, in an attempt to fit in and survive, should I unleash my inner jerk and conquer the road?


I tried playing nice; I really did. I braked and blinkered and smiled and waved, but it was getting me nowhere–literally. People looked at me with expressions of mixed confusion and disgust. At first it was the road rage that compelled me. Every time a rogue truck nearly mowed me down I bellowed in fury and threw around my middle finger, knowing full well they couldn’t actually see me through my tinted windows. But I eventually learned to channel my inner yogi to calm down, and I realized that the key to survival was driving just like everyone else–like an asshole.


It’s like being a child when your parents leave you home alone for the first time and you suddenly realize you can break ANY rules you want, and so you do, just for the novelty of it. Or maybe it’s like being locked in an ice cream store overnight. Either way, once this idea occurred to me, things became fun. I started feeling like a teenaged boy, myself. I laughed maniacally. Rules? What rules?! Muahaha! My eyes glazed over with reckless abandon. Oh, you think you’re getting in here? Bring it on cabbie! Haha no way, sucker! I became greedy. I can’t decide which lane I want so I’m going to drive in the middle of them both! Weeeeee!

Crazy driving in Korea

Ok I didn’t actually take this picture, but I wouldn’t even be surprised to see this.

Photo source: Koreabeat


At one point I actually sat patiently waiting at a deserted intersection for a red light to turn. A bus barrelled up from behind me and, without tapping his brakes, whizzed through the intersection. I glanced at my friend with a mischievous grin and shrugged, “When in Rome…” and didn’t give that red light a second thought. It’s a slippery slope, though; where does the madness stop?!  I’m afraid I’m going to forget how to follow driving laws and go home thinking parking on the sidewalk is completely acceptable. I do try, though, to remember that whether the people here obey laws or not, they are ultimately in place for my own safety and maybe, just maybe, I can set an example by being a safe driver.


Whenever a fellow expat learns that I have a car they usually exclaim, “Wow, you’re so brave!” and I chuckle and reply, “brave, or stupid, I’m not sure which”. But whatever being a driver in this country makes me, I love having a car. I can go to the store and buy whatever I want, without wondering how I’m physically going to carry it on the bus home. I don’t have to sit around waiting for the subway or chase after bus drivers who relish in closing the doors in my face. I can cruise over to a friend’s house to borrow something without it being a two hour mission. There are so many little things about having a car that I always took for granted before!
Driving in Korea is dangerous and stressful and crazy, but road trips are a priceless perk. There is nothing quite so refreshing as cruising through the beautiful Korean countryside with the windows rolled down and the radio turned up. It makes me feel just a little bit at home. Me and Betty have a fun year ahead of us…

Korean countryside

Cruising through the Korean countryside

  • Congrats! I’m guessing you live in rural Korea? That’s exactly how I ended up with a car, too, and my oh my was it a good time. I also developed road rage while driving there and kept running red lights and… yeah, I’m surprised I could even operate a car in the USA without getting a ticket within fifty seconds of my return. I really, really miss my car from Korea, now, too! You’re gonna get attached to a minivan… hahaha.

    Enjoy the freedom! YAYYYYY!!!

    • KaleenasKaleidoscope

      I actually live in Daegu, which makes driving even crazier! haha. And why does everyone call it a minivan, I thought it was more of a station wagon? Not gonna lie though, I do like all the space! Soccer mom van here I come! haha