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South Korea — New Safe Haven For Islamism?


South Korea had been one of the remote areas, which established direct economic contact with Muslim majority countries.  Historians trace the earliest record of contacts to the time of Goryeo  Kingdom in which a number of Muslim immigrants settled down in Korean Peninsula. More importantly and surprisingly, Muslim immigrations have never had strong impact on the introduction of Islam to Korea until 20th century due largely to geographical barriers. In the course of Korean Civil War, Turkey  sent its own brigade to help South Korean government. This brigade participated not only in the military operations, but also in educating orphan children and in humanitarian affairs. It’s the Turkish brigade, which initially imported Islam to Korea.  During the more than a decade-long Park Chung Hee’s staunchly anti-communist rule, South Korea acheived stable economic development owing largely to  US assistance and export-oriented economic measures. As a result, South Korea turned from non-urbanized remote Asian country into one of the highly industrialized regional powers. Rapid industrial sophistication generated strong and constant need for cheap workforce in South Korean labor market. Ironically, the period of South Korea’s economic advancement matched two important historical tendencies, which played the pivotal role in recruiting expats and immigrant laborers:

  1. The fall of Communist bloc

As a result of the fall of Communist bloc, high umemployment became the major problem in post-communist countries. It accelerated the levels of emigration flow and brain drain process. People began to come to work in South Korea from CIS Republics, Vietnam, Indonesia, Burma and China.

  1. The Rise of Islamism

In a neutral  sense, Islam began spreading rapidly in South Korea. In 2001, the number of Muslims in South Korea was somewhere around 34.000. There was around fivefold increase to 150.000 within two decades. The first mosque, that is Seoul Central Mosque, was built in 1976 in Seoul. Today, every metropolitan area has multiple mosques and Islamic centers. Thus, South Korea has been significantly  islamized within the last 4 decades. On the other hand, except for anti-communism, South Korea was sufficiently tolerant to embrace any religion or ideology. It made South Korea an ideal recruitment destination for radical islamists. It should be noted that the main goal of Islamic preachers in the area is to spread Islam among local Koreans, whereas, islamist radicals mostly aim to radicalize Muslim diaspora in Korea. Therefore,  as the levels Muslim immigrations grew, the importance of South Korea increased  in front of radical islamist organizations’ eyes. More importantly, as Turkey began closing its doors for radicals under international pressure, Korea was seemed to be optimal choice for logistical purposes, funding and propaganda. There are, indeed, some factors that facilitated their penetration into South Korea.

Sensible number of Muslims

In the light of strong marketing strategies, infrasructural sophistication and high labor wages, South Korea was able to attract high number of Muslim immigrants. Consequently, by the 2015s, there were numerically sufficient, unnoticed Muslim immigrants in South Korea. Because of geographical barriers and low levels of inter-governmental cooperation they were monitored by their countries of citizenship not enough. It created a brilliant opportunityfor  potential recruiters to radicalize them.

The lesser legal bounds — the more opportunities

There is visa-free access for Turkish and Russian citizens according to South Korean law. Provided that Turkey have significant number of refugee-passive radicals (mainly of Caucasian and Central Asian decsent), it was ironically easier for any Turkey-resided radical refugee to pay visit to Korea for whatever reason than an ordinary Uzbek employee who is expected to undergo several check-ups for visa issuance. South Korea also universally simplified its visa issuance procedure to improve immigration. It made Korea not only an ideal tourist or employment destination, but also a recruitment platform. Thus, not only ordinary disaffected islamists penetrated deep into the country, but also, notable radical clerics openly visited and preached there.  According to special report released by UN Security Council, hundreds of uzbek islamist militants operating in Syria are leaking into South Korea via Turkey as of February, 2019. It should be noted that uzbek militants’ penetration to South Korea, where high numbers of uzbek foreign employees reside, is not a  new phenomenon. During 2010s, Mirzagholib Hamidov, former member of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, that is an officially designated terrorist organization,  and ostensibly a Muslim scholar publicly paid a visit to South Korea to meet Uzbek diaspora. He met with Uzbek immigrant workers  and gave a sermon in one of the mosques in Gimhae. He was not even touched by South Korean officials. It may be because South Korea had no clue about how to differentiate between ordinary Muslim scholars and radical religious ideologues. Or, it could be the case that as a part of its competition against Japan and China over Central Asia,  South Korea wanted to hint Uzbek government that it may have impact on the security of the country. Either, South Korean goverment did not simply want to risk its ties with Turkey, Hamidov’s main supporter and  one of the countries, which helped South Korea out in the Civil War. Whatever the case may be, it is a dangerous tendency on South Korea’s part, because propaganda openly exercised by radicals might disturb Korea’s own internal harmony and inter-ethnic and religious balance, given that the country have already become multi-ethnic and multi-religious region owing to the high levels of immigration. For whatever   reason, there are still cells that are openly (though unoffically) operating in South Korea.

Need for international cooperation

Because of problems that arose from its immigration, South Korea seemingly began to reform its immigration poolicy to prevent further issues. The government is trying to balance the number of immigrants through financial measures. From 2010 onwards, insurance tax for foreign employees and students were increased. However, may this approach benefit to reverse pre-existing promlems is a matter of time and speculation.

It is obvious that South Korea has already been multhi-ethnic and multi-religious country as said above. However, the country has no background experience in dealing with the brave new world of multi-religional landscape unlike Europe and Russia. It would be a necessity of current period that South Korea should invest on its scientific bodies to adapt them to current highly globalized environment. Either, It have to recruit foreign specialists, whose knowledge can be used to deal with the situation. With regard to the rising levels of islamism, such measures are of paramount importance.

Firdavs Ibrokhimov