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The Role of Muslim in Korean Economy: Past and Present

Dr. Seong Min Hong (KIME president)

Ⅰ. Forward

Ⅱ. Commercial Relationship between Korean (Silla people) and Muslim

Ⅲ. The Possibility of Trade Activity between Korean and Muslim

Ⅳ A hypothesis on Ancient Trade Relation between Korea and South Arabia

Ⅴ. Concluding Remarks

* Bibliography


* This paper was read at The 1st International Symposium on Muslim Minorities in Asia by the title of The Challenge and Prospect in Multi-Cultural Society on July 4(Fri) ~ July 6(Sun), 2008 at Hotel Seoul KyoYuk MunHwa HoeKwan, Seoul Korea . It was Organized by Organization of the Islamic Conference In Coordination with Korea Muslim Federation. (This paper is not published. Thus I introduce the summery only.






      The summery of The Role of Muslim in Korean Economy: Past and Present

Korean War (1950-53) became to motivate directly an Islamic adventure to Korea and 'oil crisis' gave an opportunity to contact with Muslim in 1970s. In the modern context, Korea's contact with the Middle East has been started since 1970's, more correctly speaking, after the first 'Oil Crisis' of 1973.

In Korea, the number of Muslims is estimated to be about 45,000 and about 70 or 80% of them are foreigners in addition to some 100,000 foreign workers from Muslim countries. There are Korea Muslim Federation in Seoul and 8 permanent mosques around the country, and in general, Islam is a growing religion here.

Muslim's activity has put down roots in Korean society. Arab businessmen and sailors played the great role in East Asian trade during A.D. 5th - 10th centuries. That was the time when Arab sailors established the first commercial routes around Southeastern Asia and settled sea trade route with China. Today many residents of the ancient period are living in China as a Chinese Muslim.

Keeping pace with this situation, Muslims arrived at Korea (Silla dynasty) as well according to Korean history. However these contacts vanished completely from the change of Korean society and decline of Muslim's ruling the sea from A.D. 12th century. Muslim immigrants were gradually assimilated by the Koreans, and then they dissolved in the local population.

The fact that when, where and why the Muslims contacted with Korean historically is very important to find out the commercial activity in those days. Considering the wide activities of the Arabs in history, they would have traveled to Eastern countries, especially China for silk trade. They might have visited Korean peninsula from the curiosity of commerce after the exploring China. Certainly we can find the fact that the Arabs traded with China through 'Silk Road'.

To broaden commercial activity with the Middle East, it is necessary to trace the contact between Korea and the Middle East simultaneous history. Commercial activities between Korean and Muslim in history can guide the future economic relation between us.

Accordingly this paper aims to examine the time when the Muslims traded with Koreans and deduce the goods that were exchanged between them at that time directly or indirectly. Doing much for examining historical research, this paper can trace the role of Muslim in Korean economy in past and present time.

It is very difficult to distinguish the role of Muslim in Korean economy. Various materials and historical relics have proved the early contact in 7th century or the before. Certainly many Muslims contacted with Koreans after the birth of Islam. Ibn Khurdazibah and other documents including Korean history just mentioned Muslim's coming and going and settlement in Korea. Besides Mosque in Gaeseong during the late Goryeo dynasty and the beginning of the Deoksu Jang clan also mentioned social but economic contact in Korea.

Nevertheless this paper could find the activities of Muslim merchants through contact with Koreans in the middle ages. Confining the study in the medieval Islamic period, this paper came to draw following conclusions:

First, the origin of commercial relations between Korean and Muslim goes back to Shilla era. As for the discontinuation of it, Islam fallen into a decline before and after 12th century and, in return of that, Western Empires became to get the command of the sea. After that, Korean trading had faced with the boundary of their activity till the Second World War.

Second, through mutual commercial relations between Shilla, China and the Middle East, this paper confirmed that the import goods from Korea to the Middle East were ginseng, gold or silver pocketknife (Firind), silk fabrics, pottery and hawk etc.

Finally, the products which including smelling medicine, East-India's spice, rhinoceros horn, ivory, parrot, and peacock etc. were imported to Korea as the commodities of Muslim's trade. But the special products of the Middle East did not be found in the above-mentioned sources.

Obviously Muslim had played a role to promote international trade and deliver strange culture into Korean society in the middle ages. But their community was melted by Korean society and assimilated into Korean culture not like China till now. This can be owed to characteristics of Korean society. On the contrary, in China from the mid-13th century, the privileged merchants of Islamic adherence came to organize themselves and were called 'Ortaq Merchant' . In this way Muslim merchants had been accumulated their wealth. Their polygamy custom also was concerted with Chinese polygamy custom and the number of Muslim increased greatly.

Otherwise in Chinese case, Korean society has kept unitary state system through kingdom. By this reason, religion in South Korea is dominated by the traditional Buddhist faith. The practice of both of these faiths has been strongly influenced by the enduring legacies of Korean Confucianism, which was the official ideology of the 500-year-long Joseon Dynasty, and Korean shamanism, the native religion of the Korean Peninsula. A small minority of Koreans also profess Islam.

This is the main reason why this paper cannot clarify `Muslim community' and its role in Korean economy. Certainly many Muslims are contributing to Korean economy as shown the number of Muslim labors, about 10,000 persons. Now it is not easy to formulate Muslim community, especially as an economic organization considering the characteristics of Korean society. The establishment of Islamic bank can be an alternative way to increase the role of Muslim in Korean society.


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Publisher: Korea Institute of the Mideast Economies (KIME). Editor: Dr. Seong Min HONG.

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