Sunday, June 16, 2019

The Ambassadors of the Republic of Korea to the Philippines: point men in the land of their blood brothers

(Published in ENRICH magazine)

HISTORICALLY, THE KOREAN EMBASSY in the Philippine has been at the forefront of Korean-Philippine relations and its Ambassadors the point men in this role.

Some of these men have been more effective than others, as is the case with all ambassadors from whatever nation.

But the Ambassadors of the Republic of Korea to the Philippines over the past decade have measurably and immeasurably contributed to strengthening their country’s already deep historic ties with the Philippines. Especially in a period marked by spectacular Philippine economic growth and mounting security challenges triggered by China’s imperial expansionism.

The four Ambassadors of the Republic of Korea to the Philippines since 2008 can probably be described as “quietly effective.” Of course, it’s a given their aim is to advance their country’s national interests, but the Philippines and South Korea share a special historical bond like no other.

This deep historical bond between the Philippines and South Korea forged in the late 1940s seems to have transcended national interests, however. One of Korea’s Ambassadors told Filipino soldiers who defended South Korea during the Korean War (1950-53) that the Korean government wanted to assist the Philippines become a nation as rich as his.

Stunned to hear this, the Filipino veterans were even more astounded when the Ambassador said this happy event might occur by the 2030s. And, to his credit, this Korean Ambassador walked the talk during his two-years in office.

The four Korean men who held the title of Ambassador to the Philippines over the past eight years were witness to rapid and sustained Philippine economic growth (6% on average from 2010-2015).

South Korea contributed significantly to this growth with investments; tourists and trade, and her Ambassadors were undoubtedly part of this equation with their quiet effectiveness.

Blood brothers
Besides a dedication to helping grow the Philippine economy and helping mitigate poverty, these Ambassadors were all aware of the deep debt of gratitude Korea owes the Philippines. That gratitude stems from the historical fact South Korea and the Philippines are, quite literally, “blood brothers.”

In September 1947, a proposal by the Philippines at the United Nations helped guarantee South Korea’s first general election that led directly to the creation of the Republic of Korea on August 15, 1948.

On March 3, 1949, the Philippines became the first Asian state to open diplomatic relations with the Republic of Korea. The Philippines was a “ninong” (godfather) to South Korea at its birth.

In a letter to President Elpidio Quirino, Syngman Rhee, first President of South Korea, said of the Philippines:

“As a nation which courageously and with high vision stood resolutely in the forefront of the international movement to re-establish the sovereignty resident in the people of Korea, your generous and forthright extension of recognition to Korea comes as a happy augury of cordial relationships of our two peoples.”

Only 15 months later or on June 25, 1950, communist North Korea launched a massive invasion aimed at conquering South Korea. That invasion ignited the Korean War. Impoverished South Korea (then one of the five poorest countries in the world) pleaded to the world for assistance and the Philippines responded immediately.

Over the next few weeks, the Philippines rushed food, medical supplies, tanks and weapons to South Korea. And on August 7, President Quirino announced the historic decision to send Filipino soldiers to South Korea to help save it from communist conquest.

The Philippines became the first Asian nation to send combat troops to defend South Korea, and the fourth member state of the United Nations to do so.

On September 19, 1950, less than three months after the start of the Korean War, the first Filipino soldiers landed in Korea at the port city of Busan. The 10th Battalion Combat Team (BCT) was the first of five Filipino BCTs that would serve in Korea from 1950 to 1955 under the Philippine Expeditionary Force to Korea or PEFTOK.

Over 7,400 Filipino soldiers served in Korea. Of this total, 112 were killed in defense of South Korea; some 400 were wounded while 16 Filipinos remain missing-in-action until today. The Philippines paid a heavy price as blood brother to South Korea.

Memorial Day
That’s why all of South Korea’s Ambassadors have attended somber ceremonies held every year in the Philippines on Sept. 7. This day was declared by the Philippine government in the year 2000 as “Korean War Veterans of the Philippines Memorial Day” to honor the role played by PEFTOK in the Korean War and in helping rebuild Korea.

South Korean Ambassadors salute the surviving PEFTOK veterans during commemorations held at the “Korean War Memorial Pylon” at the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Cemetery of Heroes) and thank the veterans for their service that helped make South Korea the nation it is today.

South Korea’s Ambassadors since 2008 -- Dr. Joong-Kyung Choi PhD; Hye Min Lee; Hyuk Lee, and current Ambassador, Jae Shin Kim -- have all attended ceremonies commemorating Korean War Veterans of the Philippines Memorial Day.

This, then, is the background that welcomes all of South Korea’s Ambassadors to the Philippines. And if you visit the newly re-designed website of the Korean Embassy, you’ll read a message from Ambassador Kim saying:

“It has been 66 years since Korea and the Philippines set up diplomatic relations. The Philippines sent about 7,400 soldiers during the Korean War and this alliance has become a foundation of the two country’s bilateral relationship.”

This acknowledgement recognizes the source of the deep historical bonds that unite South Korea and the Philippines. Those bonds have grown stronger during the past decade despite economic and political turmoil around the world.

Dr. Joong-Kyung Choi
Appointed Ambassador in 2008 when world financial markets were collapsing because of what has since been termed the “Great Recession,” Dr. Joong-Kyung Choi PhD brought with him his invaluable experience and political influence as South Korea's former first vice finance minister.

When he presented his credentials to former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, he emphasized “my government's and my people's desire to usher in a new chapter in the Philippine-Korea relations.”

Dr. Choi apparently did just that and opened a new chapter over the next two years. He focused on boosting Korean investments in the Philippines; supporting small Philippine businesses and strengthening the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

During his term, there was a notable increase in Korean investments, military aid and official development assistance to the Philippines. This was accompanied by more aggressive promotion of cultural and people-to-people ties through the year-long commemoration of the 60th anniversary of Philippine and Korea diplomatic relations in 2009.

Dr. Choi masterminded the “Multi-Industry-Cluster” (MIC) concept first implemented in northeastern Bohol. MIC combines several related industries into one contiguous region to facilitate operation support, cut costs and maximize resources. It has since become a template for South Korea’s assistance to the Philippines.

Before he left office in 2010, South Korea established MICs for agricultural development in six Philippine provinces. One of these provinces, Bohol, made Dr. Choi an “adopted son of Bohol” -- the first Ambassador conferred this honor by the province.

Dr. Choi is remembered with deep respect by Filipino veterans of the Korean War for setting in motion in 2009 the project that eventually led to the opening of the Philippine-Korean War Memorial Hall in 2012.

The Philippine-Korean War Memorial Hall is South Korea’s gift, and a gesture of gratitude, to the men of PEFTOK. Located inside this imposing building is the PEFTOK Korean War Museum, the first museum built specifically to enshrine the accomplishments of PEFTOK.

The Memorial Hall stands inside the Philippines-Korea Friendship Center, a 5,000 square meter piece of prime property along Bayani Road inside Fort Bonifacio in Taguig City.

The Memorandum of Agreement that gave rise to the Friendship Center was signed in May 2009 by Dr. Choi; former Secretary of National Defense Gilberto Teodoro, Jr. and the late Brig. Gen. Victorino Azada, former President of the PEFTOK Veterans Association, Inc.

The Philippines provided the lot while South Korea provided funds for the infrastructure. South Korean firms began work on the project in 2010.

Dr. Choi also turned over to the Philippine Air Force (PAF) 15 Cessna trainer aircraft that South Korea donated free to the PAF. This deal negotiated by a predecessor was the ninth defense exchange made by South Korea to the Armed Forces of the Philippines since 1993.

It was Dr. Choi who told PEFTOK veterans of his country’s plan to help the Philippines become a more prosperous nation, perhaps even a developed nation, by the 2030s.

When his term as Ambassador expired, Dr. Choi was conferred the Silver Distinction, Order of Datu Sikatuna, by Pres. Arroyo in recognition of his significant and outstanding contribution to the enhancement of Philippine and South Korean relations.

Pres. Arroyo paid a state visit to South Korea, her second, in May 2009 during Dr. Choi’s term as Ambassador.

Hye Min Lee
Dr. Choi’s successor, Hye Min Lee, also focused on increasing South Korean investments in the Philippines. Lee’s task was aided immensely by his working relationship with former President Benigno Simeon Aquino III whose late father, Senator Benigno Aquino, was sent to Korea and wrote about the Korean War as a War Correspondent for a leading Filipino newspaper.

Lee’s assiduous pursuit of Korean investments in 2012 helped bring about the largest ever Philippines-Korea Development Business Partnership Forum organized by Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA), South Korea's state investment and trade agency.

At the time, KOTRA said Korea was the Philippines’ fifth largest trading partner and third largest investor.

Aquino conferred the Order of Sikatuna with a rank of Datu (Grand Cross, Gold Distinction) on Lee when the ambassador left the Philippines in September 2012.

Hyuk Lee
Ambassador Hyuk Lee, Hye Min Lee’s successor, fostered stronger military ties between South Korea and the Philippines amid the danger of war. He was praised by the administration of Pres. Aquino for facilitating different defense cooperation agreements between the Department of National Defense and South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense.

This was the time when tensions with China began to rise over China’s unlawful claim to own most of the South China Sea. In response, the Aquino administration decided to strengthen the Philippine military by purchasing arms and equipment from friendly foreign countries, including South Korea.

One of the largest big ticket arms purchases by the Aquino administration was the acquisition of 12 two-seat TA-50 jets developed by the South Korean aerospace firm Korea Aerospace Industries.

The 12 jets, which were renamed FA-50PH, were selected to fulfill the PAF's need for a light attack jet. The FA-50PH will also prepare Filipino pilots to fly modern jets such as the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon the PAF intends to purchase later on. 

The PAF has also said it plans to buy another 12 FA-50PHs. Two squadrons of this jet will allow the Philippines to mount a credible defense against China.

The FA-50PH is the first modern jet acquired by the PAF since the 1980s. Four of the jets are already flying with the PAF while the rest will be delivered by 2017.

Lee was also praised by the Philippine government for his key role in South Korea’s immediate assistance to the Philippines during Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda in the Philippines) in November 2013. This super typhoon that struck provinces in the Visayas region killed over 7,000 Filipinos and devastated the provinces it hit.

South Korea deployed 540 members of what it called the “Araw Unit” (The Sunshine Troops) consisting of soldiers from the Republic of Korea Armed Forces to Leyte in December. This unit provided humanitarian assistance and helped in the rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts after Typhoon Yolanda struck.

The deployment of the Araw Unit was South Korea’s largest ever peacetime humanitarian mission.

Before he left in 2015, Lee said South Korea was the Philippines' fifth largest trading partner and accounted for about 25% of all foreign tourist arrivals annually. He noted there are over 100,000 Koreans living in the Philippines, while about 50,000 Filipinos live and work in South Korea.

Jae Shin Kim
After his appointment as ambassador in April 2015, Jae Shin Kim promised to do his utmost to further develop the bilateral relationship in every sector. He also pledged closer cooperation with the Department of Foreign Affairs, and urged the government to ensure the safety of Koreans in the Philippines.

Over a year later, Ambassador Kim said there have been some notable achievements in the defense industry, development assistance, personal interchange and cultural exchange between the Philippines and Korea.

He happily reported that apart from major Korean companies already operating in the Philippines, some 1,300 small and medium Korean businesses in various areas such as manufacturing industry, service industry, and research and development have set up shop here.

He revealed the number of Korean construction companies doing business here has risen and that Korean brand cosmetics and food stores are expanding their operations. Bilateral trade in 2014 hit $13.4 billion, with Korea becoming the Philippines’ fifth largest trading partner.

Koreans are also driving the growth of Philippine tourism. Some 1.4 million Korean tourists visited the Philippines in 2015. From January to August 2016, the number of Korean tourists reached some 977,000.

K-Pop, K-drama and K-culture continue their remarkable advance in the Philippines that apparently took root in the 21st century. In early November 2016, the K-Ribbon Selection (a collection of Korean cultural products) opened in Quezon City. The Korean Cultural Center said this was the first time the exhibit was held in another country.

“Many Filipinos like Korean culture, K-pop, Korean drama and movies … we are organizing this exhibition because it is one of the basic foundations of the friendship of two countries,” said Ambassador Kim.

The blood brothers – the Philippines and South Korea – have come a long way but remain blood brothers.