For over sixty years, North Korea was South Korea’s singular security threat. Today, however, the threat posed by Islamist terrorism demands increasing attention.
Domestic Islamic terrorism was once unheard of in South Korea, which has a tiny Muslim minority of about 150,000. Although the majority of Islamic leaders in South Korea tend to be fundamentalist, violent extremism within the Muslim community has been uncommon. South Korean civilians working abroad occasionally fell victim to jihadists, notably in a 2009 suicide bombing in Yemen and the Ansar Beit al-Maqdis Sinai Peninsula 2014 attack, but they had little to worry about at home. South Korea’s concerns with Islamic terrorism primarily centered around North Korea’s relations with Middle Eastern organizations.
In the last few years, however, South Korea has come to be viewed as a hostile country by ISIS and likeminded jihadists. This is likely because it hosts the largest deployment of American troops abroad, has partnered with the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan and sends large numbers of Christian missionaries around the world.
ISIS listed South Korea in its September 2015 edition of Dabiq as an enemy for being part of the anti-ISIS global coalition. Six months later in March 2016, twenty government and civilian South Koreans were targeted through YouTube. No reasons were provided as to why these specific workers were targeted beyond the fact that ISIS considers South Korea a hostile country. Some on the list have no apparent relationships with the U.S. military, such as a Korean woman who translates Korean texts into English for a medical charity.
In June 2016 South Korea’s Nation Intelligence Service (NIS) announced that the Islamic State was trying to incite attacks against United States Air Force installations throughout the country, prompting the government to provide extra security. These installations are among the 77 NATO member installations in ISIS’s worldwide hit list. Additionally, the pro-ISIS hacker group United Cyber Caliphate called Muslims to “fight the Crusaders” and to “get revenge for Muslims.” It then posted the name, email, and home addresses of a Korean welfare employee, who has since been under police protection. Most of this is public information, disseminated to instill fear and boost perceptions of ISIS’s worldwide reach.
So far, no Islamist attacks have actually occurred on South Korean soil, but multiple foiled plots have garnered media attention. From 2010 to January of 2016, South Korea deported 51 foreigners who had ties to militant groups. In 2015, South Korea arrested five Lebanese bomb smugglers who sympathized with ISIS and an al-Nusra Front-aligned Indonesian man who violated the Immigration Control Law with forged documents. The country apprehended three other suspects connected to the Indonesian man who were willing to “die fighting against the U.S. and Russia.” By the end of January 2016, seven foreign workers had joined ISIS after leaving the country. The incidents prove that South Korea has to vigilantly screen foreigners to prevent Islamic crimes from coming into fruition.
Though most radicalized Muslims in South Korea are foreigners, at least three South Korean citizens have attempted to join ISIS. In January 2015, a 17-year-old middle school dropout with animosity towards feminists became the country’s first native citizen to join ISIS. Two other disgruntled South Koreannationals attempted to join the organization but had their passports confiscated. In order to combat youth radicalization, the government is implementing an anti-ISIS curriculum for public education.
While geared primarily toward the North Korean threat, South Korea’s recently-passed anti-terrorism legislation will bolster its ability to uncover and thwart terror plots. This bill, first proposed in the wake of 9/11, expands the powers of the NIS to wiretap terror suspects, establishes a counterterror center under the prime minister’s office, and facilitates the deployment of military units to combat domestic terror operations.
Critics of the legislation are wary of the NIS gaining such power. While the organization was called the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), it kidnapped, tortured, and killed political opponents. Though liberal reforms have turned South Korea away from authoritarianism, the NIS was credibly accused of interfering in a presidential election as recently as 2013.
In spite of its increasing influence, the threat to South Korea posed by radical Islamism is not going to surpass that of North Korea anytime soon, but it is likely to grow more challenging in the years ahead. While Seoul cannot eradicate jihadi terrorism, it can manage the threat by boosting its counter-radicalization efforts and enhance its ability to detect, prevent, and react to terrorist attacks.
Paul Sung is an intern at the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank.