SEOUL – For Muslims living in South Korea, halal food could be a real challenge to find, a fact officials are trying to change to attract more Muslim tourists.
“People offering me alcohol say, ‘One drink won’t kill you!’” Zahid Hussain, a TV celebrity from Pakistan, told Korea Herald.
“It won’t kill me, but it will make me as uncomfortable as dying.”
In a country with a Muslim population of around 130,000 to 140,000, Muslims have expressed difficulties in finding the right places to dine.
Hussain said one of the most common misunderstandings about Muslims among Koreans is that they are all vegetarians, a misunderstanding that stems from Muslims opting to follow a vegetarian diet here due to difficulties in finding halal food.
“The first Korean sentence we (Muslims) learn is ‘No meat, please,’” he said.
Therefore, the tourism agency is pushing to attract more Muslims tourists to the country, as Chinese tourists are dwindling in number.
In 2016, 980,000 Muslim tourists visited Korea, a jump from 740,000 the year before.
Im Gyeong-suk, the owner of Muree Muslim Food in Itaewon-dong, Seoul, said interest in halal food spiked around three to four years ago when former President Park Geun-hye emphasized the importance of the Arab market.
“The problem is that most of the people participating in halal-related programs are Koreans. The complexity and details of Islam are something that even converted Muslims cannot fully comprehend,” said Im, who converted to Islam after her marriage in 2003.
“People say ‘That’s halal enough.’ Well, it’s not.”
Hussain, who has lived in Korea for nearly 10 years, said the most important thing is for Koreans to respect Muslim culture more.
“I love and respect Korean culture that offers alcohol, and I also love and respect my culture where there is no alcohol,” he said.
“We need you to respect the culture of halal. I don’t want to ask for no meat. I want to ask for more meat, but while keeping halal.”