Whereas China relies on its economic might to cultivate allies in the Arab world, one of the country’s East Asian neighbors is adopting a different strategy. South Korea is leveraging its most famous export, popular culture, to make a name for itself in the region.
This campaign is bearing fruit: K-pop, the Korean music genre, has saturated Algeria, and a cultural center in Abu Dhabi hosted an event for fans of last year’s hit South Korean television show “Squid Game.” In Morocco, meanwhile, South Korea is gaining popularity with yet another demographic: students.
When Moroccans consider higher education overseas, countries in Western Europe and North America tend to top the list. France, the former colonial power in Morocco, and Belgium, home to a significant Moroccan diaspora, attract Moroccan students because they offer courses in French, the kingdom’s primary language of instruction. The French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec provides similar programs, and many Moroccans also go to Germany, Italy, and Spain thanks to their geographic proximity to Morocco and world-class academic institutions.
Despite this competition, South Korea’s growing cultural cachet in the Arab world has encouraged some Moroccan students to look further afield. Imane Gmira, a 24-year-old from Fez, began attending Kookmin University in the South Korean capital of Seoul in 2016. However, she first came to South Korea a year earlier when she represented Morocco in competitive dance at the K-POP World Festival at Changwon in 2015.
South Korea’s growing influence in the Arab world has encouraged some Moroccan students to look further afield.
“I have been interested in Korean culture for over 10 years, and always dreamed of visiting Korea,” she told Inside Arabia.
Korean culture likewise informed the decision of Souad Bimekliouen, a 23-year-old from the Moroccan capital of Rabat, to pursue a master’s degree in international relations at Sogang University in Seoul.
“I fell in love with Korea through the novel ‘Pachinko,’ by Min Jin Lee, which narrates the story of Zainichi Koreans,” she said. “After reading the book and digging deeper into Korea’s history, I came to find an extraordinary land with an inspiring success story.”
The increasing availability of opportunities for Moroccans to study Korean and engage with Korean culture is feeding their interest in attending South Korean universities. In the last three years, a Korean cultural center and a Korean language school — the latter supported by South Korean officials — have opened in Rabat. In 2019, South Korea’s embassy in Morocco also hosted a “Korean cultural festival” highlighting “Korean films, traditional music, and exhibitions to promote bilateral cooperation” in Agadir, Khouribga, Marrakesh, Rabat, Settat, and Tangier.
Students may even learn Korean in the central Moroccan city of Meknes, where Moulay Ismail University has been offering classes in the language for years.
“The first reason that I chose to study Korean is my love of their culture,” said Asmae Zaaouani, a 26-year-old who took a year of Korean classes at Moulay Ismail University before moving to the neighboring city of Taza to teach English at a private school. “I’m fascinated by their life, their culture, and their art.”
Zaaouani declined to study in South Korea because of the difficulty of the move, but Majdouline Bouroua, a 20-year-old from Rabat, began learning Korean in high school with the goal of going to the East Asian country. She is now pursuing a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering at Pukyong National University in Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city.
“Since I was young, Asian culture has always sparked my interest, and growing up I interacted with people from different ethnic backgrounds, which encouraged me to become more curious about the lives of people beyond Morocco’s borders,” Bouroua told Inside Arabia. “Interactions with my Korean friends in Morocco and the widespread ‘Korean wave’ — Korean culture, Korean dramas, etc. — played a significant role in sparking my curiosity toward this culture.”
The standard of living in South Korea serves as a significant draw for Moroccans.
In addition to the possibility of engaging with Korean culture firsthand, the standard of living in South Korea serves as a significant draw for Moroccans. In 2021, South Korea ranked 17th on the Social Progress Index, an assessment of the livability of over 200 countries. That same year, the Economist Intelligence Unit listed Seoul as the 25th-safest city in the world.
“South Korea is very safe,” said Bimekliouen, who is taking Korean classes on Jeju Island before she starts her program in Seoul. “This is something I can’t emphasize enough. I am entirely at ease walking home alone late at night, even with my phone in my back pocket. I can leave my phone, laptop, and other personal belongings alone at my table while using the restroom in a cafe. That would be a major risk somewhere else, or at least in Morocco.”
“I love how, wherever I go in this country, I always feel safe,” added Chaymae Nouar, a 23-year-old from Rabat who will pursue a master’s degree in marketing at Kookmin University next year. “I am also a big admirer of the beautiful Asian nature, and of how convenient life here can be thanks to the developed technology.”
Gmira echoed Nouar and Bimekliouen’s comments.
“My favorite things about living in Korea are the safety, the fast and high-quality service, the transportation, and the convenience stores and small things that make my everyday life better,” Gmira told Inside Arabia.
Public transport in South Korea and Seoul, in particular, has earned plaudits from a variety of publications outside the country. South Korea’s livability has even eased the transition for Moroccans who moved to the country for reasons other than studies.
Public transport in South Korea has earned plaudits from a variety of publications outside the country.
“Korea is easy to adapt to,” said 27-year-old homemaker and social media influencer Loubna Fikri, who relocated from the Moroccan port city of Asfi to Seoul five years ago, after she met her South Korean husband. “The infrastructure is good, and you never get bored here because there are a lot of things to do. If you want to travel, there are many things to see here, and there are job opportunities.”
Bouroua cited South Koreans’ hospitality as another perk of life in South Korea, noting, “I can always feel the warmth each time I drop by the local market.”
Mohammed Tahri Joutei, a 20-year-old student in marketing at the International University of Rabat who participated in an exchange with Sun Moon University, in the western South Korean city of Asan, added that he “enjoyed every single moment” in South Korea because of all that the country has to offer.
Even as South Korea’s livability and globe-trotting culture inspired Moroccans like Tahri to study in the country, his compatriots represented a fraction of the 152,281 international students at South Korean universities in 2021. According to the South Korean Education Ministry, just 178 Moroccans were attending South Korean academic institutions as of April 1, 2021.
To provide a further incentive for Moroccans and other foreign students to come to South Korea, the National Institute of International Education (NIIED), a subunit of the Education Ministry, administers the Global Korea Scholarship (GKS). The GKS funds foreigners’ travel to and studies in South Korea, covering airfare and tuition for undergraduate and postgraduate students from outside South Korea as well as health insurance, a monthly stipend of about $800, and a year of Korean classes — unless recipients already demonstrate proficiency in the language.
Bimekliouen, Bouroua, and Nouar arrived in South Korea through the GKS. The program enabled Bouroua to study Korean in Asan and is paying for Bimekliouen and Nouar’s ongoing Korean classes at Jeju National University and Busan University of Foreign Studies.
Moroccans who immigrated to South Korea outside the framework of education can also receive assistance. Fikri, the homemaker in Seoul, said that South Korea arranged for a Korean tutor to come to her house since she has to stay at home to care for her daughter.
Moroccans who immigrated to South Korea outside the framework of education can also receive assistance.
The NIIED and South Korea’s embassy in Morocco failed to respond to repeated requests for comment about how else they are working to bring more Moroccan students to South Korea. However, the experiences of Moroccans already attending South Korean universities suggest that South Korea must go well beyond offering scholarships and enact major cultural and political changes to establish itself as a leading destination for Moroccans interested going abroad for higher education.
Gmira, the alumna of Kookmin University, has received her bachelor’s degree in sociology and is beginning a job as a translator at a South Korean startup. Despite her plans to remain in South Korea, she described the cost of living there as “overwhelming, since Seoul is known for being one of the most expensive cities in the world.” Fikri launched her Instagram account to help other Moroccans navigate the expense of life in South Korea. She has accumulated 129,000 followers. Gmira’s account, @songhtll, has reached 26,000.
South Korea’s sometimes hostile immigration laws can make for additional challenges. Though the country has undertaken reforms to encourage immigration as the South Korean birth rate declines, the byzantine system that immigrants must navigate creates headaches for employees and employers alike.
“My least favorite thing about Korea is the service at the immigration office and the lack of opportunities and complicated laws when it comes to foreigners,” said Gmira.
Moroccans and other foreigners who go to South Korea may discover another paradoxical challenge: while Korean culture has circled the globe, South Korea itself remains quite insular, and international students may have to make adjustments.
“As a Muslim, it can be quite challenging to find halal restaurants in South Korea, except in big cities like Seoul and Busan — but even there the options are limited,” Bouroua told Inside Arabia.
Bimekliouen could find “only three Indian restaurants who serve halal meat” near Jeju National University.
“Nearly 90 percent of the food here, even yogurt, has pork in it.”
“There aren’t a lot of halal options,” explained Fikri. “Nearly 90 percent of the food here, even yogurt, has pork in it. For that reason, pork was the first word I learned in Korean, so I could read all the ingredients on packages. Anyone who comes here must be prepared to learn Korean, because the Korean people don’t want to speak a language other than their own.”
Tahri, the exchange student from the International University of Rabat, learned this lesson the hard way: “I didn’t have any idea how to interact with people at first because they don’t speak that much English.”
Bouroua confirmed that “not being able to handle basic, daily conversations can be quite challenging, as not so many Koreans speak English.”
On a personal level, Muslims traveling outside the traditional borders of the Muslim world often encounter racism, including in South Korea.
“There isn’t Islamophobia, but there is a phobia of foreigners and a preference for some foreigners over others,” said Fikri. “Koreans just recently became a bit more open to foreigners, and they prefer white, blond foreigners, like Americans and Britons, over us Arabs. When they see a Muslim woman wearing a hijab, they stare at her a lot because they are curious about why she would wear a hijab.”
“There isn’t Islamophobia, but there is a phobia of foreigners and a preference for some foreigners over others.”
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The number of Muslims living in South Korea remains small at 200,000, less than 0.4 percent of the population.
“Islam is a religion foreign to Koreans,” said Soo Jeong Yi, a senior research fellow at the Sogang Euro-MENA Institute at Sogang University. “Most Koreans don’t know Islam well. This doesn’t necessarily signify religious prejudice or hatred — most Koreans just don’t know enough about Islam to evaluate how they feel about it.”
Earlier this year, Muslim international students at Kyungpook National University became the target of racist protests after they began building a small mosque in the southeastern South Korean city of Daegu.
The hostility to Muslim immigrants took an even more sinister turn last year, when a South Korean lawyer released a video from surveillance cameras at a detention center for undocumented immigrants that showed one of his clients, a Moroccan man, on the floor of a cell with his hands and feet tied. The episode sparked an uproar in Morocco, whose embassy in Seoul reached out to the South Korean Foreign Ministry over the matter.
“I can tell that Koreans have a very bad image of Islam and Muslims.”
“I wouldn’t call it Islamophobia, but I can tell that Koreans have a very bad image of Islam and Muslims,” said Gmira. “The media is the first one to blame.” She clarified that she had nonetheless “never been personally attacked or bashed for being a Muslim.”
More often than outright racism, Moroccan students in South Korea will experience micro-aggressions.
“Having natural curly hair, for example, gets me a lot of attention,” said Bimekliouen. “However, I know it is not coming from a bad place — Koreans are just curious to see something that stands out, as the norm here is to blend in with the crowd.”
Even with the potential cultural, financial, and legal difficulties awaiting Moroccans in South Korea, the East Asian country boasts many advantages over other destinations for international students, including more traditional options for Moroccans, such as Western Europe.
“As Asian countries are viewed as brilliant when it comes to education, I think getting an academic degree in South Korea is even more valuable than at any French university,” Gmira told Inside Arabia.
Yi, the scholar at the Sogang Euro-MENA Institute, argued that “the high level of research in South Korea is key to the choice of foreign students.”
Bouroua concurred, noting, “The fact that South Korea is a technology-oriented country with high university rankings and rapidly advancing medical sciences contributed to my decision to pick this country.”
U.S. World and News Report’s 2022 list of “best global universities” features seven South Korean academic institutions among its top 400 contenders. QS World University Rankings goes even further, putting six South Korean universities among the top 100 in the world for 2022. Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University — South Korea’s three most prestigious universities — even have their own acronym: SKY.
U.S. World and News Report’s 2022 list of “best global universities” features seven South Korean academic institutions.
China, perhaps South Korea’s chief economic and geopolitical rival, has been drawing from its significant resources to outcompete South Korea in attracting Moroccan students. Whereas the GKS only awards funding to about 1,300 international students each year, China offers tens of thousands of scholarships for foreigners, among them many Moroccans. China has also supported the establishment of Confucius Institutes — Korean language centers’ better-funded counterparts — at universities in Rabat, Tangier, and Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city.
“China seemed like a great place to study since it’s beautiful with an amazing culture,” said Nour el-Houda Benoutemmahi, a 25-year-old from the southern Moroccan city of Agadir who obtained her bachelor’s degree in business administration at Wuhan University of Science and Technology. “The cost of studying in China is the same as at a private university in Morocco.” She added that South Korea’s cost of living precluded her from studying there.
Though these attributes would appear to give Chinese universities a leg up over their South Korean competitors, China has major disadvantages over South Korea in the race to court Moroccan students.
“I didn’t find studying in China particularly great,” said Benoutemmahi, explaining that she felt as though she would have received a better education in Morocco.
Yi said that South Korea, for its part, affords perks that foreign students might struggle to find elsewhere: “Korea’s general cost of living is considered cheaper than Japan and more expensive than China. By contrast, the whole environment for living is similar to Japan and better than China.”
South Korea affords perks that foreign students might struggle to find elsewhere.
Even with how far South Korea still has to go to accommodate Muslim international students, the East Asian country offers a far more hospitable residence for them than does China, which has garnered headlines for years after embarking on a campaign to intern hundreds of thousands of its own Muslims in concentration camps. China also lacks South Korea’s presence in pop culture, and the Chinese authorities’ aggressive approach to lockdowns and complicated restrictions on foreign entry in the wake of COVID-19 will further deter Moroccan immigration.
In the long term, South Korea’s courtship of Moroccan students may help the East Asian country turn Morocco into the type of trading partner that China has already found in North Africa. Morocco exported $485 million in goods to China in 2019, compared to just $140 million to South Korea. Meanwhile, Morocco imported $4.47 billion in goods from China, but only $415 million from South Korea the same year, indicating that South Korea will likely be playing catchup for years to come.
At least one Moroccan graduate of a South Korean university has a stake in the development of South Korea’s economic ties to Morocco.
“Ideally,” said Gmira, “I would love to work for a Korean company that has investments or some kind of economic cooperation with Morocco.”
Bimekliouen expects Morocco and South Korea’s engagement to form a central component of her academic career, given that she will be studying the subject when she analyzes international trade at Sogang University.
“It will be interesting to take a close look at ways to reinforce the Moroccan-South Korean bond and potential African-East Asian ties with my master’s research, since both parties are now important trading partners, and their trade relations are at a stage that is likely going to develop in the future,” she told Inside Arabia.
South Korea will have to invest in providing Moroccan students with a welcoming environment.
Yi advised that, if South Korea wants to entice more forward-looking students like Bimekliouen and Gmira, the country will have to invest in providing Moroccan students with a welcoming environment: “To attract more Moroccan students, South Korean universities should establish more Muslim-focused programs to accept international students — not only educational programs but also various facilities like musallas and halal restaurants within universities.
As South Korea debates the next steps in its strategy to recruit international students, the Moroccans who already moved to the country seem more than content with their decision.
“So far, I’m really enjoying my journey in South Korea,” Bouroua told Inside Arabia. “Every day, I get to know more about Korean culture and people. Every day is a new challenge and a new experience where I get to step out of my comfort zone, break stereotypes, and widen my perspectives. I appreciate taking every opportunity to represent Morocco, as Korean people are very curious and willing to learn about my country and culture.”