By Han Dong-Man
Ambassador, Republic of Korea
The Philippines is a familiar country in Korean society. Boracay and Cebu are very popular destinations among Korean tourists. Among ASEAN member states, the Philippines was the first country with which Korea has established diplomatic relations, and it is also our blood ally that sent troops to help fight against communism during the Korean War.
In the 1970s, the Philippines sent engineers who aided in ushering in Korea’s industrialization. With an economic growth rate of 6.7% last year, the Philippines has been transforming itself into the “rising tiger” of Asia. Considering the Philippines’ strong economic performance and its continued alliance with Korea, it was in Manila where Moon Jae-in, president of the Republic of Korea, vowed that Korea would elevate the level of relations with ASEAN member states to the similar level of those with the four major powers around the Korean Peninsula last November.
The significance of President Duterte’s visit to Korea lies not only in strengthening the bilateral relations but also in Korea’s pursuance of the “New Initiative for ASEAN” that aims to enhance co-prosperity, people-to-people exchange, and peace.
First of all, President Duterte’s visit to Korea will serve as a momentum toward co-prosperity through economic cooperation in the fields of trade, investment, and infrastructure. With its “Build, Build, Build” program, the Duterte administration plans to invest $180 billion in overall infra development until 2022, and also seeks Korea’s cooperation in achieving its “Golden Age of Infrastructure.”
Korean companies have participated in various infra projects of the Philippines, such as power plant installation and operation, shipbuilding, road and airport construction, and have consequently gained a remarkable reputation. The Korean government has provided financial assistance worth around one billion US dollars through soft-loan programs. In addition, on May 4, Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano and I signed a soft-loan arrangement amounting to one billion US dollars. I hope this assistance will further boost cooperation in infrastructure between Korea and the Philippines.
As a gateway to ASEAN markets, the Philippines is becoming more and more attractive to foreign investors as a promising market with a young and a large population of 100 million at the average age of 23. A beautiful natural environment, abundant natural resources, and a young English-speaking workforce are also drawing investment. It is not surprising that US News and World Report last march selected the Philippines as the best country to invest in.
The two countries have been expanding trade and investment with the Philippines. Last year, the trade volume between our two countries grew by 36% year-on-year to $14.3 billion. Many Koreans have been actively investing in the fields of electronics, energy, defense, and leisure. I am optimistic that our cooperation will expand to include core areas of cooperation under the New Initiative for ASEAN, such as eco-friendly industries and smart cities.
I also see that people-to-people exchange between Korea and the Philippines will further grow. Korean entertainment is gaining popularity in the Philippines. For example, a concert of EXO, Korean idol group, in Manila last April ended in a big success with all 10,000 seats instantly sold-out. Last year, the Korean drama “Goblin” hit a Philippine national TV rating of 17%. With the popularity of Korean culture, many Filipinos pick Korea as their favorite country to visit. In fact, over 400,000 Filipinos visited Korea last year. The Philippines is a major tourist destination for Koreans as well. Actually, it has been Koreans who visit Philippines the most among foreign tourists for several years. Last year alone, over 1.6 million Koreans visited the Philippines.
Finally, the two leaders’ meeting will be a cornerstone to strengthen the cooperation in establishing peace not only in the Korean Peninsula. The Philippine government has always supported Korea when it comes to Korean Peninsula matters. Recently, the Philippine government affirmed the position that the April 27 inter-Korean Summit would contribute to peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula as well as that of Northeast Asia region.
Remembering the valuable contribution of Filipinos to Korea in times of difficulty, I believe this is the time for Koreans to assist the Philippines and to further elevate the bilateral relations. I wish the first official visit of President Duterte to Korea would be a new milestone to make groundbreaking progress not only in the relations between the two countries but also between Korea and the ASEAN.