IN the Philippines’s diplomatic point of view, China is a “close cousin,” the United States a “distant relative,” Taiwan is our Austronesian compatriot, while Vietnam and Singapore are allies.
Yet for all these claims of neighborly kinship, it was only in South Korean soil that Filipinos shed so much blood to prevent a communist takeover that we, the older generation, might consider them the closest of all.
“Our bilateral relations have deeply developed ever since the Philippines dispatched 7,420 troops during the Korean War,” Republic of Korea (ROK) Ambassador Han Dong-man said during a recent Coffee Club forum of the BusinessMirror.
“To date, there are about 100,000 Koreans residing in [your country,] which contribute to the level of [our] people-to-people exchange,” Han boasted.
Although speaking with a heavy native accent, Han’s English is impeccable, as he explained, “even now, the Philippine government and Filipinos provide their continued and unwavering support for Korea’s role and achievements in making a nuclear-free and peaceful Korean Peninsula.”
He noted that President Duterte appreciates and welcomes ROK’s New Southern Policy.
“We need to work with friends and partners to achieve shared aspirations for our people and region,” Korea’s top envoy to the Philippines averred, and added that Duterte and President Moon Jae-in have met twice before: at the Asean Summit on November 3, 2017, and during the former’s official visit to Seoul on June 4, 2018.
HISTORICAL accounts have it that the Philippines’s Expeditionary Forces fought in the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. During five epic battles, 112 Filipino soldiers were killed, more than 400 were wounded and 14 were declared missing in action.
Six officers and 22 enlisted men were honored for meritorious services by the Philippine and American governments, including a Military Merit medal for a young Filipino graduate of the United States’ Military Academy (or “West Point”): second Lt. Fidel Valdez Ramos, who would be the Philippines’s future commander in chief.
In an account of one of the bloodiest battles, “more than 2,500 soldiers were wounded and over 1,100 died in the raid led by Filipinos. When the Chinese tried to regain control of [Eerie Hill, an additional] 500 casualties were reported—most of whom were Chinese—with only 24 deaths from the Philippines forces.” Ramos was the platoon leader at that bloody battle.
Of course, several other Filipinos were awarded medals of valor and for all sorts of display of bravery during that three-year battle, with hopes of reinstating democracy in the land of the Koreans.
It is this sort of “blood compact” that makes Filipinos and South Koreans profess their closer intimacy to one another—perhaps more than among any of their Asian neighbors.
Early Korean migration
MANY might not be aware, but a record number of South Koreans have called the Philippines their home since the 1800s. That closeness is appreciated more by the older generation—a concept totally unknown to the younger lot.
One of the earliest accounts of Korean presence in the country stated: “Jang Bogo of Unified Silla [the name often applied to the Korean kingdom in the 7th century] was said to have visited the Philippines as early as the 8th century. However, further contact was minimal until more than a millennium later, in 1837, when Andrew Kim Taegon [before his martyrdom] and two other Korean Catholics took refuge in the Philippines after fleeing a riot in Macau, where they had been studying. They lived in a monastery near Lolomboy, in Bocaue, Bulacan.”
There have been five waves of migration by Koreans to the Philippines since then; the latest in the 1990s, when Korean students matriculated in local universities who sought to learn fluent English, attracted by “affordable” enrollment fees.
A HOLDER of a Master’s degree in International Administration at the Pantheon-Sorbonne University in Paris, France, Han places front-and-center our close cultural bonds by noting that the Korean Cultural Center was established in 2011 “to expand awareness of Filipinos in Korean culture.” It offers language classes, as well as lessons in traditional and K-pop dance, singing, taekwondo, Korean cooking and cultural events.
There are also events and engagements being staged, such as the Filipino-Korean Cultural Exchange Festival, Korean Speech Contest, Pinoy K-pop Star, and Global Taste of Korea, among others.
Needless to point out, hallyu or the Korean cultural wave, has taken the country by storm. A concert of EXO, a Korean-idol group, was a huge success in April, with all 10,000 allocated seats in the venue sold-out instantly. And last year, the hit Korean TV drama Goblin aired in record ratings.
Top visited country
THE envoy noted with admiration that many Filipinos pick South Korea as one of their favorite countries to visit.
Han took note of the 450,000 Filipinos who went to ROK last year, while there were more than 1.6 million Koreans who came here, making the latter the top source of foreign tourist arrivals.
Since 2010 Korea has consistently been the top tourist market of the Philippines. In 2017 Han said the number of his visiting countrymen increased by 9 percent to 1.61 million, which make up almost a quarter of the tourism market share.
The good ambassador enumerated their destinations of choice: Cebu, Manila, Kalibo (as a gateway to Boracay), Clark and Bohol.
“I am trying to bring up to 2 million Korean tourists to the Philippines by the end of my term,” he declared.
Adding another cultural layer to the two countries’ relationship, Han said a memorandum of understanding was signed with the Department of Education that allows the Korean tongue to be taught in public high schools through its Special Program in Foreign Languages.
“There are also programs and centers for Korean Studies in [various institutions of higher learning, like] the University of the Philippines, Ateneo de Manila University, as well as the University of Asia and the Pacific,” he said.
On Korean reunification
ALTHOUGH a recent survey shows that more than half of young South Koreans favor their reunification with their North Korean relatives, Seoul’s top local diplomat admitted, “There’s a long way to go for the realization of [such].”
According to recent polls, more than half of the young people there are amenable to the reunion, because it can bring about an economic boom.
Han cited a research of Goldman Sachs, a leading global investment institution, which predicted of a unified Korean economy that would suddenly become the seventh in the world if North Korea’s cheap labor forces and abundant natural resources are combined with South Korea’s capital and technologies.
On the other hand, the ambassador explained a perception of some South Koreans who do not want to reintegrate with their northern brothers due to generation gap. “But, generally speaking, young people want the status quo because they’re now enjoying the current situation, while the older generation who experienced the Korean War wants [it to happen].”
The obstacle to the realization of reunification, he surmised, is because of heterogeneity: “There is a totally different political, economic, social system between the two Koreas. So the question is how to integrate [those systems prior to] unification.”
The answer, Han said, lies in learning the lessons from the merger of East Germany and West Germany. However, there were misgivings about the eventual union of the two states because of its unexpected outcome.
He expounded that before their reintegration, West Germany’s economy was four times bigger than East Germany. But following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the unified economy suffered from degradation.
Aware of the unexpected results of political accommodation, Han was of the opinion that “we should not make that same mistake.”
HAN warned that Seoul should be very cautious of a hasty reunification because: “The priority…in the Korean Peninsula is to bring peace and stability before moving [in that direction].”
As problems are ironed out, the ambassador said that bilaterally, “we should increase our cooperation and reconciliation.”
Han said that after the Korean War ended in 1953, the two countries followed different paths: Seoul pursued economic development while Pyongyang did the same, but proceeded with its nuclear advancement.
From then on, the North’s economy continues to stagnate. Han cited reports that 21 percent of its children are suffering from hunger and malnutrition, “that’s why recently, the United Nations had to provide [them with] humanitarian assistance.”
From the political standpoint, however, he assured, “We will continue to cooperate with the North to bring peace and stability, [as well as] for Asian prosperity.”
Today Pyongyang’s economy is only 2.5 percent of Seoul’s. “That means, [ours] is 40 times bigger than theirs. The question is, how can we narrow the huge gap?”
Han noted that North Korea’s mineral resources are 20 times bigger than theirs that Seoul had to import. He reasoned out that if the peninsula is reunited, they could make a win-win solution benefiting both the north and the south.
Under this arrangement, the envoy hopes that the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank could provide assistance to the North after the unification because “it’s not only a Korean issue, but an international [one] that will bring peace and stability on the peninsula.”
More so, that if and when North Korea gives up its nuclear ambitions, Han said: “South Korea, Japan, the US and the international community are ready to provide [it with] huge economic assistance.”
He, likewise, sees the revitalization of the North’s economy prior to unification as a small burden.
Military, nuclear power
MEANWHILE, Han, a recipient of his country’s Order of the Service Medal, said he is unaware if the additional fighter jets Duterte wanted to add for the Philippine military would be sourced from South Korea or other countries.
Earlier, the Chief Executive criticized the acquisition by the previous administration of its procurement of 12 FA-50 fighter jets from Seoul. Today, however, he wanted to add 12 more, following the planes’ outstanding performance during the Marawi City siege.
The Korean diplomat recalled Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana’s statement to the media that there will be more jetfighters to buy, “but we don’t know whether [they will be] from Seoul or from other countries.” However, the former hastened to add that their military equipment is “objectively very cheap, although achieved through very costly techniques.”
Han disclosed that the South Korean aerospace industry employs more than 4,000 workers “just for research, [and they possess] doctorate degrees in their field of expertise.”
He added his country used to depend on the US for technological know-how, “but we have developed our own, that’s why we can make jetfighters, helicopters, submarines and frigates.”
Touting their technological prowess, Han said his country now has 25 nuclear power stations that supply 40 percent of their electricity. He professes that they used to get their nuclear technology from the US, “but we have developed our own nuclear power plants. We [now] export them to the United Arab Emirates to the tune of $40 billion.”
Last December Seoul has completed an agreement with the United Kingdom to export its nuclear power plants to the British. “Now we’re negotiating with Saudi Arabia, also to sell [the same].”
The good ambassador guessed that Seoul could be second or third in the world in the amount invested for research and development. He said even giant electronics company Samsung has spent more than 12 percent of its income for R&D, “because without huge investments in [that area], it’s not possible to be competitive with other countries.”
GOING through his curriculum vitae, Han has been around the world as his country’s multifaceted envoy. After joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1985, he has held secretarial posts in Algeria, the United Kingdom and Australia, as well as in South Korea’s Office of the President.
In 2002 he served as the director of the Security Policy Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, then later as consul at the Korean Consulate General in New York City.
After he assumed the post of consul general in San Francisco, California, he was appointed as deputy minister for Overseas Koreans and Consular Affairs.
In all, the diplomat has more than 30 years of experience in representing his country in policy planning, trade issues and public relations.
Han was posted as ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the Philippines in January 2018. He is married and has two sons.