By Jonathan Hicap
SEOUL, South Korea – Lee Hyuk, former Korean ambassador to the Philippines and Vietnam, is the new and fourth secretary general of the Seoul-based ASEAN-Korea Centre (AKC), the only intergovernmental organization tasked to promote economic and socio-cultural cooperation between the two regions.
In an exclusive interview with Manila Bulletin in Seoul, Lee discussed his new role, vision for furthering ASEAN-Korea partnership and fond memories of the Philippines, and praised President Rodrigo Duterte’s massive “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program.
ASEAN, composed of the Philippines, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, has been Korea’s second largest trading partner.
In 2017, the trade volume between the two regions totaled $149.1 billion, up from $118.8 billion in 2016, and a two-fold increase from $75 billion in 2009, he said. Korea’s investment in ASEAN was $4.8 billion in 2016.
Since being established in 2009, Lee said, the Centre “has carried out 50-60 work programs annually in the fields of trade and investment, culture and tourism, and people-to-people exchanges.”
“Compared to when it first established, ties between ASEAN and Korea have shown a remarkable progress,” he said, adding that the goal is to achieve $200 billion in two-way trade by 2020.
Lee said this year, under the collective theme of “Connecting People, Sharing Prosperity,” the AKC “will focus on the key elements of ‘People-centred Community Building and People-to-People Exchange,’ ‘Sustainable Development,’ and ‘Prosperity and Industry 4.0.’”
For the Philippines, he said, the ASEAN-Korea Youth Network Workshop will be held in the country in July that will bring 70 university students from ASEAN, Korea, Japan, and China to the Philippines.
The ASEAN-Korea Tourism Capacity-building Workshop will also be held in the Philippines in August to support Filipino tourism professionals through lectures by Korean tourism experts and on-site consultations at famous tourist sites in the country.
Build, Build, Build
Lee praised President Duterte’s “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program as it will spur development.
“I believe President Duterte’s infrastructure program is very timely and relevant, as it will pave the way for robust economic growth of the country. In particular, as over half of the infrastructure projects will be implemented outside Metro Manila, it will also contribute to narrowing the development gap between the Metro Manila and rural areas,” he said.
He added that the program “will certainly open doors for Korean companies to take part in infrastructure projects in the Philippines through public-private partnership (PPP) scheme,” saying that Korean companies like POSCO and Korea Electronic Power Corporation (KEPCO) have already conducted joint projects in Clark.
“The AKC will make continuous efforts to provide potential Korean investors with latest information and required assistance in participating in these projects,” Lee said.
As the new AKC secretary general, Lee promised that “during my term, I’ll make my utmost efforts to design and implement work programs that can produce more tangible and substantial outcomes.”
Memories of the Philippines
Lee served as Korean ambassador in the Philippines from 2012 to 2015 and recalled the cooperation between the two countries during his time including the Korean government’s help in rebuilding Leyte, the hardest hit by Typhoon Yolanda, which killed more than 6,000 people in the country in 2013.
“The Korean government immediately decided to send military troops to rebuild and reconstruct the Leyte area so the military troops were there for one year. The Korean embassy also was working very hard together with the Korean military to facilitate the rebuilding and reconstruction of damaged areas in Leyte especially in Tacloban and some other cities,” he said.
He added that “it was a very rewarding memory for me because I was there a few times to oversee the works of our military engineers and construction workers. It was that time when Filipinos felt closer to Korea and the Korean people more than ever.”
Lee said he told Korean military personnel that “don’t think we are helping them. We have to think we are working together with the residents of the Leyte island to make their lives better than before.”
He also cited the signing of the contract between the Korean government and the country’s Department of National Defense in 2014 for the purchase of 12 Korean-made FA-50 fighter jets, the very first time that the jets were exported, during his time as ambassador.
“The Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), which builds military equipment, was able to export 12 FA-50 fighter jets to the Philippines. That accounted for $430 million. It was a very momentous because of the successful contract to export the FA-50 to the Philippines, KAI was able to follow through to export the jets to other countries,” he said.
Lee added that “there are other so many other good memories about the Philippines. The Filipino people were always kind to me. I have always regarded Filipinos as friends.”