Islam has a very small presence in South Korea. As recently as 2005, the religion section in the country’s census did not offer “Muslim” as a category. Currently, the number of Muslims in South Korea reportedly stands at roughly 200,000, or about 0.4 percent of the population. Many are migrants from countries where Islam has a bigger presence, while some are South Koreans who converted.
According to a local website introducing Islam, there are only eight mosques in South Korea. By contrast, the number of Protestant churches affiliated with major Protestant associations in the country is at least 30,000.
A lack of familiarity with Islam, coupled with the headline-grabbing antics of groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, have helped breed a degree of Islamophobia in South Korea. This is often stoked by less inclusive Christian groups and publications, who have come up with alarmist reports overstating the number of Muslims, alleging that Muslims are using tactics like “spreading halal food” and having more children through polygamous families in order to “Islamize” Korea.
But in 2016, progressive religious publication News n Joy debunked some of these myths, using reliable data sources to calculate that the number of foreign Muslims in the country was about 168,000. (South Korea’s total population now stands at about 51 million.)
The proposed building of a halal food production zone in Iksan, a small city in western South Korea, also sparked a predictable backlash, spearheaded by Christians.
Despite sparking a controversy out of proportion, the Iksan halal zone reflects a new and somewhat unfamiliar dynamic, growing more prominent in recent years: South Korea working to attract Muslim visitors as cash-spending consumers rather than migrant workers.
The Iksan situation came about when China banned group tours to South Korea in early 2017 as part of a dispute over the deployment of the US THAAD missile defense system in the latter. Desperate to replace lost income, South Korea stepped up efforts to attract tourists from other countries, including Muslim states in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
This is novel because a considerable part of South Korea’s nationalist self-esteem is built on economic superiority and pride in its rapid industrial development in the late 20th century. Producing halal food and providing other facilities (hotel room prayer mats, for example) for Muslim visitors and consumers can be seen as a form of acknowledging the growing economic prowess of many Muslims worldwide.
Money from Muslim states has played a role in boosting the South Korean economy, since the country has targeted Middle Eastern countries for construction contracts in the mid-1970s. According to daily newspaper Donga Ilbo, the value of orders won by South Korean companies for construction projects in the Middle East shot from 750 US dollars in 1975 to 8.2 billion dollars in 1980. Today, South Korean firms remain highly active in the region, with projects such as the Burj Khalifa and Barakah nuclear power plant in UAE, and power and desalination plants in Saudi Arabia.
On the other hand, despite active trade and growing tourism, racism and Islamophobia persist within the country. Many Muslims residing in South Korea come as migrant workers from countries such as Bangladesh and Uzbekistan, which Koreans often look down on as poorer, less developed countries.
Islam vs. Protestantism
To gauge the prospect of Islam establishing itself on a large scale in South Korea, it’s interesting to look at the case of another foreign religion that has been wildly successful there: Protestantism.
While Catholics had been persecuted in Korea for more than a century, Protestantism arrived with better timing in the late 1880s. It was introduced by Western missionaries, some of whom were doctors and began establishing hospitals and schools. This was a time when the isolationist Neo-Confucian political framework of the country’s ruling dynasty was looking increasingly inadequate in the dog-eat-dog world order of the late-19th and early-20th centuries.
Protestantism was espoused by some Koreans — especially in the tiny elite that had been educated in the United States — for its relatively progressive notions. In the early 20th century and in South Korea after national division in 1948, Protestantism was influential among the political elite, as epitomized in Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s first president.
From the 1970s, South Korea’s Protestant population exploded, driven in large part by the communities offered by churches to uprooted, newly urbanized Koreans; by now the phenomenon was driven by homegrown pastors and the country was exporting plenty of its own missionaries.
Could a similar explosion happen with Islam? At the moment, it seems highly unlikely, for several reasons.
First, South Korea is in a much stronger position today than when Protestant missionaries arrived on the peninsula 140 years ago. Its economy and living standards are among the largest and highest in the world, and it is a liberal democracy with a constitution modeled to a large extent on the Western states from which Protestant missionaries first came.
Second, Islam is associated by many South Koreans with states that are either less politically liberal, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, or less prosperous, such as Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan. It is generally not associated with better lifestyle prospects.
Third, many conservative Protestant organizations in South Korea wield a degree of prosperity and media influence that will allow them to strongly resist any sign of growing Muslim influence in the country. Their neurotic reaction to the tiny Islamic presence in South Korea today suggests that they would ramp up their Islamophobic resistance in the future if they felt the need to do so.
Fourth, Islam prohibits two things that play an essential role in South Korean culture: pork and alcohol. Enjoying grilled pork belly with soju is something approaching a national pastime, while drinking itself is an integral element in corporate and social culture. The enforced binge-drinking rituals associated with large, hierarchically-structured companies may be waning, but abstinence from alcohol is a long way from being palatable to most South Koreans.
It’s a fact that South Korea’s Muslim population is growing. According to the Hankook Ilbo, it grew 54 times in the half century. In 1965, when the Korea Muslim Federation was founded, the country counted 3,700 Muslims; in 2015, the number of legal foreign resident Muslims, illegal resident Muslims and South Korean Muslims amounted to roughly 200,000. But this growth accompanied a huge increase in the overall number of foreigners living in South Korea. From 2005 to 2015, the overall number of foreign residents in the country rose faster than the total number of foreign Muslim residents.
There’s little reason to think that Islam is set to grow beyond the status of a very minor religion in South Korea — at least for the time being.
Ben Jackson authored this article.
Cover image: Seoul Central Mosque. (Source: Republic of Korea via Flickr)