I WAS the Philippine Ambassador to the Republic of Korea from May 1999 until my retirement from the government service in June 2003. My wife Angie and I recently returned to Seoul with our daughter Jhoanna, who is assigned to the Philippine Embassy in the Korean capital to handle economic and UN matters. We wanted to help her settle down and for the personal reason that Angie and I we wanted to see Korea again after eleven years.
Visiting a country again after a long lapse may be likened to a journey of rediscovery. One has to look for new developments. It was most notable that Korea’s economic ascendancy has remained on course. A US credit rating agency has assessed that ROK is poised to join the rank of the advanced economies by 2018.
Korea’s ascendancy is being manifested as well in more visible and grander structures. The 63 Building, the tallest during my Korean tenure, will soon be dwarfed by the 123-storey Lotté World Tower. In March 2014, the mammoth Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Park was opened to the public after a five-year construction period at a cost of US $450 million. The spaceship-like structure was designed by Zaha Hadid, a well-known female British architect of Iraqi origin.
It was nostalgic revisiting the venerable hotels that hosted our national day events and Philippine VIPs. The original JW Marriott Hotel occupies a special place in my heart for it was where the Embassy staff and attached agencies gave me a sentimental farewell dinner in June 2003. I celebrated my birthday at the hotel with three esteemed Koreans as guests. One of them was Dr. Sohn Woo Sik, a Roving Ambassador for Peace, according to one of his numerous credentials. I value his friendship. He never fails to greet me on my birthday wherever I am. He also sends me regularly beautiful Korean greeting cards during the holiday season (Christmas-New Year). The Korea Unification Preparatory Council, of which Dr. Sohn is now the president, honored me with the Unification Preparatory Prize in June 2003.
I was looking forward to seeing again some dear Korean friends but was made painfully aware of the transient nature of human life. They could no longer be contacted for either they have crossed The Great Divide or they have become physically or mentally disabled.
The two Korean presidents who were in office during my tour of duty in Seoul both passed away in 2009. Kim Dae-jung, the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize laureate who left a deep imprint in my mind, died of natural causes. After his official visit to the Philippines in November 1999, he sent me a special vase bearing his own calligraphic script. Kim’s successor, Roh Moo-hyun, committed suicide “in response to the corruption investigation targeting him and his family,” according to the account of Daniel Tudor in his book “Korea-the Impossible Country.” The author wrote that “the suicide had a cleansing effect on Roh’s image and his family’s image was restored.” Roh had a low public satisfaction rating when he left the presidency in 2008 but a public opinion survey in 2011 placed him as the second most popular South Korean president of all time, after Park Chung-hee, the father of the present president of ROK and the acknowledged brain behind Korean industrialization.
In retrospect, Pres. Roh impressed me as an unassuming and conscientious person. I observed his demeanor during the visit of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to Seoul in early June 2003. He was a poor man from the rural area who became a self-educated human rights lawyer. When Roh assumed the presidency in February 2003, The Korea Times ran a series of letters addressed to him by prominent figures from around the world. The letters contained either advice or constructive suggestions for governance. The 36 letters, both in English and Korean, were published in book form by a Korean government agency. I was one of the 36 letter-writers. My letter dealt with ASEAN-ROK relations and the plight of foreign workers in Korea.
I treasure the uplifting Citation that Pres. Roh signed to accompany the decoration/award conferred on me upon the completion of my assignment to Korea. It praised my “meritorious and outstanding contributions to Philippine-Korean relations,” adding that “his (my) valuable dedication and service have earned him the appreciation and admiration of the Korean people.”
The political scenario in our country has given me a chilling food for thought. In his column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer (12/4/14), Randy David wrote that “instead of shelving his presidential ambition to ease the pressure from the avalanche of corruption charges he faces, Vice President Jejomar Binay will seek the presidency to fend off these charges.” Therefore, Malacañang is VP Binay’s end game because capturing the presidency would put an end to the charges against him. His major supporter, former president and now Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada, sought political redemption when he tried to recapture Malacañang in the presidential derby in 2010. However, destiny ushered Benigno S. Aquino 3rd into the presidential race and put Estrada in second place with Noynoy enjoying a margin of over five million votes over him.
My memory has vividly recorded that when Estrada made his state visit to ROK in June 1999 during the first month of my assignment to Seoul, then Speaker of the House of Representatives Manuel Villar and neophyte Congressmen Manuel Roxas and Noynoy Aquino were members of his official delegation. All four of them became the main protagonists in the presidential election of May 2010.
Whose destiny will prevail in 2016? I sincerely hope the Filipino people will not suffer from the consequence. Although I am already 78 years old, I still want to be considered as a stakeholder in our country’s present as well as future prospect. Love of country is infinite.