Much of the media accounts of President Aquino’s presence at the inauguration of the Peftok Korean War Memorial Hall (near the Libingan ng mga Bayani) last Thursday centered on his remarks regarding the plan of the North Korean government to release a long-range rocket later this month.
In his speech at the formal ceremonies and in an informal press conference that followed shortly after, P-Noy underscored “the risks for all concerned,” including the Philippines, should the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea go ahead with its announced plan to launch an “Unha-3” rocket off its west coast. Saying that “no one knows the exact trajectory of the rocket,” the President said fragments of it could land on Philippine territory and endanger Filipino lives. Already, the Department of Foreign Affairs has announced plans to evacuate Filipinos from South Korea should tensions escalate, while the Japanese government has said it was prepared to intercept and shoot down the DPRK rocket if it threatens Japanese territory.
By its own unilateral action, the government of Kim Jong-un, the young successor of “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-il, has thrown the entire Asian region into a tizzy. And if it does push through with what many governments perceive as an act of hostility, it could very well reverse the decades of economic progress that Asian countries, including South Korea, have achieved since after World War II.
So it was also unfortunate that the planned missile launch dominated the media discourse of the War Memorial launch, since the building is a concrete symbol not just of the Philippine contribution to the Korean War, but also of continuing cooperation between our two countries.
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These days, South Korea is viewed as a valuable trading partner—in the words of South Korean Ambassador Hye Min Lee “the third largest source of foreign investment and the fifth largest trading partner … [with] bilateral trade volume [reaching] US$10.9 billion.”
Last year alone, said the ambassador, almost one million Koreans visited the Philippines either as tourists or as investors, students and residents, “and in the same way, more Filipinos have made Korea one of their top tourist destinations.”
But 62 years ago, it was the arrival of the first of five Battalion Combat Teams (BCTs) from the Philippine Army, known collectively as the Philippine Expeditionary Force to Korea (Peftok), that cemented the ties between our two countries. The Philippines was the first country in Asia to send combat troops to Korea in response to the UN Security Council’s resolution to come to the defense of the beleaguered young republic. This, despite the fact that it had only been five years since the end of World War II, with the economy still recovering from the immense destruction following “Liberation.” At the same time, the government was battling a communist insurgency, and the mission was viewed as not just rushing to South Korea’s aid but also as a defensive move against further communist incursion.
P-Noy took advantage of the occasion to remember his father Ninoy’s stint as a teenage war correspondent in Korea. His father’s major lesson, he said, was the need to continue the “fight for freedom.” Recalling Ninoy’s ties with another Korean democratic icon, Kim Dae-jung, P-Noy said they instilled in him a commitment to fight not just for peace, but also against “corruption, impunity, apathy and poverty.”
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Like P-Noy, my two sisters and I made it a point to be present at the inauguration because of a personal connection: Our father, Capt. Ernesto Jimenez, had served in Korea, as part of the 14th BCT, known by the tag “The Avengers.” The 14th BCT was headed by our uncle, Col. Nick Jimenez (a former ambassador to Korea), and is counted as the fourth contingent to fight in Korea. But it is actually the last to be involved in combat, since the 2nd BCT was involved in post-conflict reconstruction.
Paying a visit to the Peftok Museum, we searched for the lighted pillar containing photos of the 14th BCT in action and a list of the names of the men who had taken part in the action. What a thrill it was to find our Papa’s name among them! We took turns posing by the pillar, fingers pointing at his name.
Among those present at the rites were South Korean Minister of Patriots and Veterans Affairs Park Sung Choon, Ambassador Lee, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, Philippine Veterans Affairs Office administrator Ernesto Carolina, and Col. Paterno “Pat” Viloria of Peftok Veterans Affairs Inc.
Joining them was one man with a deep connection to Korea, former President Fidel V. Ramos, who fought there as a young lieutenant. When I commented that he looked so handsome in a photo taken in Korea, the jovial veteran remarked: “That’s not me, that was my grandfather.” Memories, indeed, grow softer and mellower with time. But time cannot erase the depth of gratitude of the people of Korea toward the 7,420 officers and men of Peftok who left their country and families to defend their freedom.
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