Taking the First Footsteps on the 21st Century Silk Road

      May 20, 2008 09:43


      There is something I always stress when meeting people from the Middle East as a diplomat -- the fact that exchange has been taking place between the Korean peninsula and the Middle East via the Silk Road since a thousand years ago. Considering the knowledge of geography and the means of transportation back then, this sort of exchange is simply amazing.

      This trade lasted until the early Chosun Dynasty, then ceased as Europe rose to the forefront of history. In modern times, both the Korean peninsula and the Middle East did not have the opportunity to voluntarily forge ties, as both regions were caught up in the wave of international politics.

      In his book "Orientalism," Palestinian-American theorist Edward Said criticized the Western sense of superiority, especially in its biased views of the Middle East and Asia. But paradoxically, we also have a certain degree of "Orientialism" toward the Middle East. This appears to have been caused involuntarily as we absorbed and internalized the systems and values of the West during our modern history.

      It is a well-known fact that the Arab people maintained and preserved the culture of classical Greece while Europe was going through the medieval Dark Ages. Yet most of us have no idea about Muslim theology, philosophy or literature, which were developed through classical Greek philosophies. World history texts prepared for our middle and high school students, as well as university students, make almost no mention of the works created by the Arab-Islamic world. Perhaps our society has been suffering from cultural monophagia?

      But fortunately, the stereotypes our society has held regarding the Middle East are steadily being torn down. We can sense the changes in many different places. We are seeing an exhibit in Seoul featuring Middle Eastern culture, while Korean-language Internet sites are filled with travelogues written by people who have been to the Middle East. A look at the Crusades from an Arab perspective is drawing a lot of attention here. As the Korean public grows more hungry for information on a wider variety of cultures, this all shows interest has grown regarding Middle Eastern society and culture. Today, with around 100,000 Muslim workers staying in Korea, this is a positive trend indeed.

      With the new focus on the Middle East and a growing awareness of the region by the Korean public, the need to set a new relationship between Korea and the Middle East is becoming necessary. Just as in human society, relationships between countries require a deeper understanding and admiration of each other's cultures and customs, history and religion, going beyond politics and economics, in order to mature and strengthen ties.

      On this note, the government has been looking into the need for the creation of an organization that could lead and organize all of the Middle-East-related activities in our society. The fruit of that effort is the soon-to-be-born Korea-Arab Society. This organization aims to pursue various projects in different sectors to expand Korea-Arab ties through the participation of the governments, businesses, academia, literati and religious figures in both regions.

      Fortunately, many Arab countries are voicing their willingness to actively support the Arab-Korea Society, for reasons that go beyond the objective of the founding of the organization. A large number of prominent political, economic, as well as cultural, education and religious figures in the Arab world plan to attend a ceremony in Seoul commemorating the opening of the Korea-Arab Society on May 26. From May to July, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is hosting the Korea-Arab Cultural Festival in Seoul, with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia taking part.

      The launch of the Korea-Arab Society is both a move toward the formation of a new partnership between Korea and the Middle East, as well as a move to instill a proper awareness of the region in our society. Now, Korea and the Arab world have embarked on a long journey on the 21st Century Silk Road to meet an old friend. Through this opportunity, it is our hope that a new interest will take off in Korea in getting to know the Arab world properly.

      The column was contributed by Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan.
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