South Korea Virtual Jewish History Tour
by Ariel Scheib and Mitchell Bard
The first Jewish settlement in South Korea was established during the Korean War (1950-1953). Hundreds of American Jews joined the armed forces in protest of the Communist invasion from the North. During the war, Chaim Potok served as a U.S. Chaplain in Korea. It was these experiences that influenced his later novels, The Book of Lights and I am the Clay.
Chabad has had a presence in the country since 2008. Most of the present Jewish community in South Korea reside in Seoul. The community is comprised of U.S. military personnel and their families, business people from around the world, English-language journalists, and teachers, and welcomes many visitors throughout the year. According to Rabbi Osher Litzman, who has served as Chabad’s emissary in South Korea since 2008, there are approximately 1,000 Jews living in the country (the American Jewish Yearbook says only 100). Most of the community’s membership is continuously fluctuating, with the departure of some military companies and the arrival of new soldiers. However, since the Korean War, a few Jewish families have permanently settled in South Korea and work in various businesses or as teachers, but most of the community are transient military soldiers stationed in South Korea until their time of duty is concluded.
South Koreans can learn about Israel and Judaism at the Israel Culture Center in Seoul, which opened in 2000. High-holiday services normally draw 200 individuals to the Chabad house, and Rabbi Litzman serves approximately 40-50 people per week for Shabbat dinners.
A limited amount of imported, packaged kosher food is available at some of the larger department stores, such as Shinsegae, Costco, and E-mart.
Approximately 100 Jews live in South Korea.
Relations with Israel
Israel Aerospace Industries and South Korean manufacturer Hankuk Carbon entered into a Memorandum of Understanding agreement to manufacture vertical takeoff and landing unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) in February 2015, which will be manufactured for South Korea’s domestic sales market.
Israeli and South Korean officials announced on May 25, 2016, that they had reached a consensus and would begin negotiating a free trade agreement.
In 2017, South Korean F-16s were observed dropping Israeli-made bombs during multiple training missions, suggesting that Israel’s Rafael had been supplying the South Korean military with equipment. Rafael does not discuss its customers, but reports indicate that a deal was signed between Rafael and the South Korean military in 2015.
During the 2018 Winter Olympics held in Pyeongchang, Chabad set up a kosher eatery near the Olympic Village that served various Korean dishes made with Kosher ingredients, schnitzel, hot dogs, and vegetarian items.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin visited South Korea in July 2019 at the invitation of South Korean President Moon Jae-in. “I am grateful to President Moon for his invitation to strengthen our wide-ranging cooperation, and I hope that we will expand it with the assistance of the special delegations who are accompanying this important visit and which include senior members from the world of economics, business, innovation, academia and science,” said Rivlin.
This was the second official visit by an Israeli president since the opening of the Israeli Embassy 27 years ago in 1992.
On August 21, 2019, Israel signed a free trade deal with South Korea, the country’s first-ever with an Asian country. Under the agreement, Israel will rescind the 7% import duty on cars from South Korea, as well as the 12% import duty on refrigerators, consoles and video games, and machines for industry. Over 95% of Israel's exports to South Korea will be exempt from customs duties. The agreement does not apply to East Jerusalem, the West Bank, or the Golan Heights.
When it was signed, the deal was viewed as an electoral windfall for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just weeks before the September elections. The agreement did not come into effect, however, until December 1, 2022, because the National Assembly of South Korea did not initially ratify it. Meanwhile, without it, the volume of trade was $3.5 billion in 2021, 35% more than in 2020.
The Foreign Trade Administration in the Ministry of Economy and Industry said in a statement: “The agreement will give Israeli companies active in the Korean market a competitive advantage, and is expected to increase and diversify Israeli exports to Korea and to encourage Korean investment in the Israeli market.”
Approximately 800 South Koreans live in Israel.
Jewish Community of the Republic of Korea
GPO Box 7595, Seoul
Tel. 82 2 544 0834,
Fax. 82 2 796 3808
Yongsan Military Garrison
South Post Chapel
Friday night services are held weekly at 7pm. Jewish Activities include holiday celebrations, Passover seders, and High Holy Day services. Civilians should coordinate their participation in advance for access to military installation. Anyone who is not a regular attendee should plan to be at Yongsan Gate #10 by 6:45, with a photo ID, to be signed in to the military base.
The Chabad Jewish Community of the Republic of Korea
Rabbi Osher Litzman
E-mail: [email protected]
Shabbat services held Fridays and Saturdays every week.
18th Fl., Cheonggye 11 Building
149 Seorin-dong, Jongro-gu
Tel: 82 2 3210-8500
Sources: World Jewish Congress;
Embassy of Israel-Seoul;
Richard Tomkins, “Israeli, South Korean firms forming JV for UAV production,” UPI, (February 3, 2016);
“Israel, South Korea to Begin Free Trade Negotiations,” The Tower, (May 25, 2016);
Korean F-16s Upgraded To Carry Israeli Weapon, AIN Online, (November 7, 2017);
What it's like to be Jewish in South Korea, Times of Israel, (February 3, 2018);
“President Reuven Rivlin Arrives In South Korea,” Jerusalem Post, (July 14, 2019);
Tovah Lazaroff, “Will Israel-South Korea Free Trade Deal Exclude West Bank Settlements?” Jerusalem Post, (August 21, 2019);
Ora Coren and Hagai Amit, “Analysis Israel Agrees on Trade Deal With South Korea That Excludes West Bank, East Jerusalem, Golan,” Haaretz, (August 21, 2019).
Dubi Ben-Gedalyahu, “Israel-S Korea free trade pact comes into force December 1,” Globes, (September 28, 2022).