A man planting love
DIPLOMATIC POUCH - Son Sang-Ha (The Philippine Star) - May 17, 2018 - 12:00am

When I was the Korean ambassador in Manila (2001-2004), I met Wonjoo Lee, a member of the Korean community. He operated a garments factory with several hundred employees in Lipa, Batangas. Mr. Lee was conspicuously different from others not only because of his successful business but also, and more importantly, because he touched the lives of the people around him. He was not blinded by the desire for riches but was more interested in helping those in need. I admired Mr. Lee for his selflessness, a natural trait that attracted my attention and, I believe, should be made known to others as well.

Mr. Lee witnessed that a significant number of school-aged children in Mindanao had no opportunity for basic elementary education. To his surprise, many of them were not even able to write their own names. This stark reality reminded him of his youth when he himself was not able to get proper education due to poverty. As he firmly believed that educating the youth was their only hope for a brighter future, he felt obligated to lead the way. So he decided that he would build schools for underprivileged children, whether their problems were due to political or religious conflicts, or mere poverty. The fact that they were illiterate and needed a helping hand just dawned on him.

The first step he made was to look for someone who could assist him in building schools in the remote areas of the island. He joined JTS (Join Together Society), an NGO which was active in various humanitarian programs around the world under the direction of Venerable Pomnyun, a respected Buddhist monk and Magsaysay Prize awardee. In 2003, Mr. Lee voluntarily opened its Philippine branch and wasted no time in getting down to the task at hand. Despite unfavorable conditions and the inhospitable environment, Mr. Lee persevered, so that today 51 schools have been built in the most remote villages located in six provinces and 19 municipalities in Mindanao. Some of them are preschools and additional classrooms to pre-existing schools.

Mr. Lee has never set a limit to the number of schools he plans to build, and is determined to continue this humanitarian program for as long as he can. He goes regularly to Mindanao, at least once a month, sometimes with his wife, usually staying from four to six days to inspect existing schools or those under construction. Although the schools may look small and humble, he always returns home with a smile after seeing innocent children learning in the places he dedicated to them. Mr. Lee is always thankful to all those pupils who have empowered him to fulfill the duty he has set for himself. He jokes that his calendar has neither Saturdays nor Sundays. This obviously means that he has no time for rest. As a matter of fact, he is quite busy with his own garments business, shuttling between Manila and Lipa. On top of these, as a leader of the Korean community in the Philippines, he makes time for various community-related activities.

When I met Mr. Lee recently, he confided in me about what he calls the second phase of his self-imposed duty to improve the living standards of residents in the isolated mountains of Mindanao. He compared it to the New Village Movement (or Saemaul Undong), which proved to be hugely successful in Korea three decades ago and, as a result, was praised as one of the main factors in Korea’s modernization. The concept emphasizes self-help and self-reliance in the community. Mr. Lee’s plan is to encourage the spirit of collaboration among the villagers and to introduce new farming skills as well as a farmer’s cooperative system, in the hope of ameliorating their conventional farming methods.

As I listened to his plan, I was much impressed by his unfaltering enthusiasm. While I am concerned about his age and the potential risks of his frequent visits to Mindanao, in spite of assurances by the government about the peace and order situation, Mr. Lee’s passion and resolve show no sign of decline.

The people of Korea and the Philippines have lived in harmony ever since establishing ties nearly 70 years ago. There are tens of thousands of Filipinos living in Korea and a greater number of Koreans are in the Philippines either as residents or tourists. This is an excellent example of how close these two peoples are.

I am confident that as long as there is a man like Mr. Wonjoo Lee, who plants a seed of love in the hearts of people, the solid friendship we are now enjoying will last a long, long time. In conclusion, I would like to invite all who read this to join me in applauding Mr. Lee for his extraordinary accomplishments in pursuit of his benevolent endeavors.

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(SON Sang-ha is the former ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the Philippines.)

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