Islam and Korea

Sent On: 
Thu, 2019-05-30
Newsletter Number: 


            The history of Islam in Africa, Europe and North-America is well known to many people. Very few people, however, know about Korea’s history with Islam. Even fewer people are aware of Yemeni refugees seeking refuge in Korea. Our Korean intern Junghoon Lee researched this history and provided an excellent report about Korea’s history with Islam and how Jeju Island became the springboard to Korea for asylum seekers from Yemen.


            Around 800 CE Korea first came in contact with Muslims and vice versa. This is due to traders, as was also the case in China under the Tang dynasty, who reached Korea through the famous Silk Road. For more than five centuries, despite not having a major role in Korean history, Muslims certainly had their role in Korean society. Following these early records, there ceases to be evidence of contact between Korea and the Islamic world after the 15th century. Nonetheless, this changed in the late 19th century as the age of imperialism and enlightenment once again brought people from the Middle East to Korea. For about a century, Korea worked to establish its diplomatic relations with the United States and Western European nations as the country aimed to industrialize and enlighten its people in hopes of eradicating its problems of poverty and insufficient education. Despite forging many political relationships during this time, Korea did not establish diplomatic relations with neighboring communist nations such as North Korea, Russia, and China until after the Cold War. Therefore, Junghoon says, “the West came to be considered the best teacher and mentor for Korea.” The Middle East did not become an area of importance to Korea until after the 1970s when soaring oil prices created new opportunities and markets for Koreans in the region. Junghoon wrote a report about this history here.


            Due to the various conflicts, civil wars and general violence in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen many citizens of these countries have sought a safe haven in neighboring countries sparking a mass migration. These refugees hope to reach economically strong countries where they would have the best opportunities to start a new life. Millions have escaped to Europe, however, their arrival has led to a rise in populist political parties as reflected in the results of the European Parliament’s May 2019 election. These populist parties seek to reduce migration, with many other mainstream political parties following suit and also advocating more restrictive immigration policies. Thus, asylum seekers are pursuing opportunities elsewhere. Yemeni asylum seekers discovered that Jeju special Self-Governing Province (also known as Jeju island) in Korea, did not require a visa for the first 30 days to most foreigners in order to recruit more tourists. To the surprise and shock of many Koreans, Jeju island became a destination for hundreds of Yemeni asylum seekers in 2018 which sparked discussions in Korea about these asylum seekers as well as about Islam. Korean views of Islam are generally very negative due to the number of reports about terrorist attacks in various parts of world in recent years, creating a general tide of anti-refugee sentiment targeted at those from Muslim countries. Junghoon also wrote a report about the Yemeni asylum seekers in Korea.


            Junghoon, a student of Arabic and intern at the Center for Arab-West Understanding (CAWU), has made it his mission to change perspectives on Islam, Arab culture, and the Middle East in Korea. He wrote about his experiences at CAWU here. Junghoon hopes to travel to Milan, Italy, on May, 31, 2019 where he will be received by Giulia Cerqueti, an Italian journalist who earlier wrote about Italian students interning with CAWU and will then travel to Turin for interviews with Dr. Enaiatollah Akbari and Fabio Geda. Enaiatollah Akbari is an Afghan refugee who found his way to Italy and did his PhD in Turin, Italy. Fabio Geda, an Italian author who mostly writes about social minorities, wrote the story of Dr.Akbari`s experiences of integration in Italy under the name of ‘Nel mare ci sono i cocodrilli (In the sea there are crocodiles)’ in 2010. Junghoon’s visit is sponsored by former CAWU Korean intern Hyeonuk Park who now runs his own business.


            We are proud to have such interns, taking the initiative to educate others against common stereotypes and continuing the work years after they have left our center.


Cairo, May 30, 2019


Cornelis Hulsman,

Editor-in-chief Arab-West Report