Standing at the threshold of the 75th year of Korea-Philippine relations

Korean Serenade - Lee Sang-Hwa - The Philippine Star

Whenever guests from Korea visit the Philippines, I make it a point to take them to Romulo Café, a local establishment named after the eminent Filipino statesman and diplomat Carlos P. Romulo. The place not only offers a taste of Filipino delicacies but also serves as a poignant reminder, in my view, of the ties between Korea and the Philippines. I believe our countries were destined to develop this kind of kinship. Karma – a term frequently emphasized by revered monks in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, where I once served as Korean Ambassador – has intricately woven a connection between our two nations, bridging our past, present and undoubtedly our future.

As a former Deputy Minister for Public Diplomacy in Seoul, I think Romulo Café could well be a cozy setting for public diplomacy. Its essence lies in fostering closer ties and facilitating a deeper mutual understanding between us. Some of Gen. Romulo’s famous lines are proudly displayed on the walls of the café. I especially appreciate what he said about freedom: “I am a Filipino born to freedom, and I shall not rest until freedom shall have been added unto my inheritance.”

The roots of our time-honored friendship go back to March 3, 1949, when the Philippines became one of the first countries to recognize Korea’s sovereignty and establish diplomatic relations. As a fledgling nation, such acknowledgment meant a lot to Korea. The following year witnessed the gallantry of over 7,000 Filipino soldiers who fought arm in arm and shoulder to shoulder with Korean troops during the devastating Korean War.

Yet, our special bond during Korea’s nation-building extends beyond common knowledge. The Philippines played a pivotal role in the UN Temporary Commission on Korea (UNTCOK) during South Korea’s formative years. Founded by the United Nations, the organization was tasked to solve daunting issues such as the elections in Korea, the formation of the National Assembly and the establishment of a government. Due to the refusal of the former Soviet Union, entry to the northern part of the 38th north latitude was denied. UNTCOK monitored the May 10 Constitutional Assembly elections in 1948, which led to the adoption of the 1948 Constitution and the creation of the Republic of Korea. Being one of the eight members of the Commission, the Philippines demonstrated its unwavering support for and solidarity with Korea from the very start of our nationhood.

Solidarity between the Philippines and Korea through the UN is well-documented. Gen. Romulo, the first Asian president of the UN General Assembly, exemplified this bond, especially during the trying times of the Korean War. In arguing for the sending of Filipino troops to buttress the UN command, he said, “Korea is next door to us and the outcome of the struggle there will have immediate and unavoidable influences, for good or for evil, upon our country.”

The Republic of Korea became a member of the UN only in 1991, but since then its trajectory has been marked by significant milestones. In 1996, five years after its accession to the UN, Korea became a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC) for the first time. Five years later, in 2001, Korea assumed the presidency of the UN General Assembly. In 2007, Ban Ki-moon became the 8th UN Secretary-General. Though a late comer, Korea’s contributions have resonated on the world stage.

Now, the world is plagued by a glut of problems and a shortage of solutions. Against this backdrop and with a heavy sense of responsibility, Korea embarks on its third tenure in the UNSC for 2024-2025. At this pivotal juncture, the significance of the Council becomes more pronounced, especially as it strives to present a unified stance on a myriad of pressing issues. Korea will spare no effort in steering the Council to live up to the expectations of the international community. Additionally, Korea aims to advance the UN’s initiatives on peacekeeping, peacebuilding and women’s rights, and tackle emerging security concerns such as cyber and climate-related threats. In these efforts, Korea’s collaboration with stalwart allies and like-minded countries, including the Philippines, will prove to be indispensable.

Though different in nature, security challenges inevitably connect the Philippines and Korea. Security situations on the Korean peninsula and in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea are intrinsically intertwined. At their trilateral meeting in August 2023, the leaders of Korea, Japan and the United States adopted a joint statement entitled “The Spirit of Camp David,” where they recognized these threats and assumed a united posture to address them. Here in the Philippines, the recent port call of two Korea Navy ships at the turn of the year underscores Korea’s firm commitment to further enhance maritime cooperation between our two countries.

At the dawn of the diamond jubilee of Korea-Philippine relations, our ties are fortified by our shared values of freedom, human rights and the rule of law. This symbiotic relationship is evident in burgeoning people-to-people connections, with Korea leading in the number of foreign arrivals to the Philippines and Filipinos increasingly exploring Korea’s cultural attractions and innovative soft power. The opening of the Korea Visa Application Center in August 2023 has eased the way for many Filipinos traveling to Korea.

Economically, our collaboration is thriving. The Korea-Philippines Free Trade Agreement is within reach. Korea remains one of the most reliable partners in the Philippines’ “Build Better More” program. Landmark infrastructure projects like the Bataan-Cavite Interlink Bridge (BCIB) epitomize our vision for co-prosperity. The BCIB, which will be the longest interlink bridge in the ASEAN region, will employ the same cable-stayed technology used in building Incheon Bridge in Korea. It is Korea’s aspiration to make its humble contribution in this flagship initiative.

Futurist and management theorist Peter Drucker said that “the best way to predict the future is to create it,” and this quote remains particularly relevant in these times of uncertainty. In his New Year’s message, President Yoon Suk Yeol stated that investing in people is the best way to invest in our future, stressing the paramount importance of empowering our future generations. Similarly, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. recognized that every Filipino is a catalyst for the country’s meaningful social transformation, and he encouraged the people to “embody the spirit of solidarity through acts of kindness, volunteerism and compassion.” With all that the Philippines and Korea have shared and achieved throughout the past 75 years, I am confident that the bonds between our peoples and nations, anchored on an unshakeable belief in human dignity, will continue to flourish, ushering in an era of common peace and prosperity.

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

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