How cultural exchange will help build stronger ties between South Korea and the Arab world

The nations are building a lasting relationship based on trade, science and culture

The Sharjah National Band, under the Sharjah Institute for Heritage, perform at this year's Seoul Friendship Festival. Photo: Sharjah Book Authority
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South Koreans are yet to reciprocate the enthusiasm for Arab culture expressed by their counterparts, one of the country’s eminent anthropologists has said.

Speaking at the Seoul International Book Fair on Saturday, where Sharjah is guest of honour, Hanyang University professor Hee Soo-lee said misconceptions about the Arab world were largely responsible for his country's limited understanding of the region.

"Unfortunately, some Koreans view Arabic culture with an antagonistic lens when they hear certain reports about the region in the media," he says.

"This is why we need to increase more cultural exchange programmes and direct communication channels between us and the Middle East to help Koreans and Arabs better understand each other."

Hee praised the expansive programme of the Sharjah Book Authority at the fair, which included panel discussions about Korean and Arabic literature, in addition to cultural and art exhibitions from the Sharjah Institute for Heritage and the House of Wisdom library, as examples of meaningful cross-cultural dialogue.

Another aspect worth addressing, Hee said, was a revision of some of the educational South Korean texts about the Middle East.

"I do want to work on handbooks relating to Middle Eastern countries and South Korea to eliminate any existing phobias or misunderstandings," he said.

"More research funds is also ideal to support scholars from both regions to exchange relevant ideas as well as conducting joint archaeological excavations between both Korea and countries from the Arab world.”

Chances are these initiatives will be revelatory as the two sides have a history dating back more than 10 centuries.

A history of trade and science

According to Hee, Muslims were first mentioned in official Korean historical records in 1024, with the arrival of Arab traders to the state of Goryeo on a trade mission.

"The records show that they did extensive trade with Koreans under the protection of the royal family of the Korean dynasty.

“It also says Kaegyeong, the capital city of Goryeo, served halal food, people built mosques and prayed to God.”

Hee says some of the pioneering scientific achievements during the Abbasid Caliphate influenced Korean society long after the former's fall in the middle of the 12th century.

"Their impact continued to the 15th century, particularly in the field of Islamic astronomy and calendar science.

“An official record from the Joseon Dynasty shows the traditional lunar calendar used by Koreans today is partly based on Islamic astronomy.”

When it comes to Arabic historical records of Korea, Hee says Korea and Sila (one of the three kingdoms of ancient Korea) was mentioned in 25 books between the 9th and 16th centuries by Muslim scholars and travellers, such as Ibn Khordadbeh and Sulaiman Al Tajir.

"These books mentioned how Korea was a great land to live in and that, in fact, it already was home to scores of Muslims," he says.

"It's safe to say this is the first record that shows the coexistence of cultures in the Korean peninsula.”

The ties that bind

It is a relationship poised to continue, courtesy of a flurry of initiatives and announcements between Korean and Emirati cultural organisations at the Seoul International Book Fair.

On Saturday, the Institute of Arab Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies received the completed volumes of the Historical Corpus of the Arabic Language by Sharjah Book Authority chairman Ahmed Al Ameri.

An official gift from Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, the eight-volume set is reportedly the world’s first comprehensive collection of works chronicling 17 centuries of development in the Arabic language.

This comes on the back of a performance by The Sharjah National Band, under the Sharjah Institute for Heritage, at the Seoul Friendship Festival held at the weekend.

Earlier in the week, an agreement was signed between Sharjah’s Department of Government Relations and the King Sejong Institute Foundation for the latter’s establishment of a regional headquarters in the emirate.

Launched by the South Korean government in 2007, and now in more than 80 countries, the language academy already has six branches in the GCC, three of which are in the UAE.

Updated: June 18, 2023, 12:05 PM