From Shin Dong-pa to BTS – and more

DIPLOMATIC POUCH - Lee Sang-Hwa - The Philippine Star

Let me start with a story I heard from a Korean who has been living in the Philippines for decades. When he first moved to Manila in the early ‘70s, a passenger sitting next to him in a jeepney asked him where he came from. When he replied that he came from the country of Shin Dong-pa, all passengers clapped in warm welcome.

So, who is Shin Dong-pa? Millennials and Gen-Zs may have no idea who this person is.

For us in the older generation, Shin Dong-pa is the embodiment of basketball. Filipinos who remember him either love him because of his skills as a player, or hate him for the same reason whenever Korea beat the Philippines in international competitions, notably in the finals of the 1969 FIBA Asian Cup where he scored a whopping 50 points.

The so-called Korean Gunner, whose incredible accuracy on the court may be likened to that of NBA superstar Stephen Curry, energized the crowd wherever the venue. In the Philippines, for sure, he is the earliest incarnation of Hallyu or the Korean Wave.

The passion of Filipinos for basketball is very much alive, as evidenced by the record-breaking crowd that watched the opening match between the Philippines and the Dominican Republic at the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup. The Philippine team has since earned a seat in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament for a chance to compete in the Paris Olympics next year. My hats off to Gilas Pilipinas!

Because Shin Dong-pa left an indelible mark, basketball brought Korea into the hearts and minds of our Filipino friends. For me, this is the beauty of soft power and the essence of public diplomacy. Soft power, after all, “arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals and policies,” according to American political scientist Joseph S. Nye Jr.

Since my arrival in the Philippines last June, I have observed that many Filipinos love Korean culture, including K-pop and K-drama. Korean stars like Lee Min-ho, Cha Eun-woo, Kim Seon-ho and Park Eun-bin, to name just a few, have not only held fan meetings in Manila but have also signed endorsement deals with Philippine companies. I recently met two senators whose young daughters are big fans of SweetHeart, Seventeen and ATEEZ. I was expecting them to say household names like BTS, Blackpink or NewJeans, but apparently the adoration of Gen-Zs for idols is more expansive than what people may assume. This is a constant reminder that I should redouble my efforts so I can keep up with the younger people, many of whom have embraced Korean culture.

As we undertake to bring our two peoples closer together, the Korean embassy recently opened the Korea Visa Application Center (KVAC). It will certainly ease the visa application process for the Filipinos traveling to Korea. During the first week of its opening, the Center received approximately 1,200 visa applications per day. The opening of the KVAC represents the vitality of people-to-people exchange between Korea and the Philippines. It is in keeping with the spirit of the Korean government’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, in which forging a stronger connectivity among peoples takes center stage.  In this regard, it is noteworthy that Korea ranks #1 in terms of tourists traveling to the Philippines. With over 30 daily direct flights from Korea, we are confident that the number of tourists from Korea will soon return to pre-pandemic figures, especially with world-class tourist attractions in Cebu, Bohol, Boracay, Davao and El Nido in Palawan.

The so-called “revenge travel” is certainly happening among Filipinos, especially with the onset of the “ber” months. I just learned lately that this phrase represents the period from September to December, the peak season for fiestas and overseas travels for many Filipinos.

The Korean government has designated 2023-2024 as ‘Visit Korea Year,’ making the opening of KVAC a perfect fit to our tourism campaign. Just as President Marcos Jr. has ordered pertinent government agencies to simplify the visa application process for foreign tourists and students to encourage them to come to the Philippines, the KVAC is one of the ways in which Korea hopes to attract more Filipinos to visit Korea.

Last weekend, Korea Tourism Organization and the Korean embassy jointly held the “Korea Travel Fiesta” in Metro Manila. It was aimed to provide a preview of winter and other fun activities in Korea that Filipino travelers will surely enjoy. In fact, they can even watch the 2024 Youth Winter Olympic Games, which will take place in Gangwon province, in January. Following the successful hosting of the 2018 Winter Olympics, it is a testament to the perfect environment for the winter festival.

The Korea Travel Fiesta is just one of many events as we move toward another milestone in our bilateral relations. Next year, the Philippines and Korea will celebrate the 75th anniversary of diplomatic ties. No wonder that ways and means to enhance cultural exchanges and people-to-people link were highlighted when President Yoon Suk Yeol and President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. met in Jakarta on 7 September.

Whether it be Shin Dong-pa or K-pop celebrities, I am humbled by the outpouring of interest and support for Korea’s soft power. It is a bridge connecting our two peoples even closer than ever. It is a great enabler to knock aside any differences and build upon our common interests. This truly is a powerful magnet that pulls and bonds the peoples of the two countries as we build a brighter future together.

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Lee Sang-hwa is the Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the Philippines.

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