History is full of accidental meetings. At times, these unintended encounters lead to the formation of relationships among people of different cultures.
Take the case of Korea and the Philippines. It is widely believed that the friendship between these two countries began during the Korean War, when Filipino soldiers fought to defend South Korea against invaders from North Korea. Almost seven decades later, their relations remain strong. Aside from sociocultural, military, and economic cooperation, there is also increased technology transfer, knowledge sharing, and people-to-people exchange. It is not surprising that Koreans account for a quarter of foreign arrivals in the Philippines, with around 1.5 million visiting annually.
But according to historical data, a Korean fisherman visited the Philippines as early as 1801, and learned the local culture. “Pyohaesimal” (Journal of Drifting Out to Sea) tells the story
of Moon Soon-deuk, whose hard experience at sea turned out to be a cultural and historical blessing. One day in December of that year, he set off from his home on Ui Island with his uncle and four friends to catch or purchase skates (similar to rays, but are usually found in deeper waters). On their way home, their boat was caught in a storm and they ended up drifting for two weeks until they reached Ryukyu — present-day Okinawa in Japan.
After staying in Ryukyu for eight months, they tried to make their way home but another storm swept their vessels off course. Again they drifted, and washed up three weeks later on Yeo-song — or Luzon in the Philippines. In the nine months that they stayed in Yeo-song, Moon and his crew learned the native culture and language.
In time, Moon left Yeo-song, but it took three years before he finally returned home in 1805. He recorded his adventures with the help of two exiled scholars, Jeong Yak-jeon and Yu-ahm, who were both interested in stories of exotic lands across the seas. From 1805 to 1816 Jeong wrote a journal based on Moon’s fascinating story. Yu later reinforced Jeong’s work, and their combined efforts produced “Pyohaesimal.” The journal provided detailed accounts of the customs, clothing, language and other aspects of Filipino culture. It is the first record of Koreans visiting the Philippines and has since been an important historical resource.
Another source of valuable information is the Royal History Records of the Kingdom of Joseon, which also contains an entry about Moon Soon-deuk. Apparently, in 1801, the same year Moon and his crew accidentally reached the Philippines, five unidentified foreigners came to be stranded on the Korean island of Jeju. No one could understand their language, so they ended up staying there for nine years.
By this time, the story of Moon had reached the royal palace. He was called to meet the foreigners in the hope that the latter came from the same place mentioned in “Pyohaesimal.” Moon immediately noticed that their faces and clothing were similar to those he had seen in Yeo-song, so he spoke to them in the language that he had learned from that place. The foreigners were in tears as they responded in the same tongue. With Moon’s help in confirming their origin, the sailors were able to return home.
Moon Soon-deuk has been acknowledged in Korea for his valuable contribution to the enduring friendships between Korea and the countries he visited. Since 2015, Ui Island has been holding festivals to celebrate his narrative. In these events, scholars and experts from South Korea, Okinawa, and the Philippines gather to discuss ways to achieve peace in East Asia.
Two centuries later, a touching story that highlights the good relations between Koreans and Filipinos made its way to the news. A Korean hiker named Choi Sung-kyu went missing in Mountain Province last June 9. Joint search efforts by the Korean community and Filipino soldiers and policemen lasted 11 days until Choi was found, in a state of near death. He recalled that a Filipino woman on a bus bound for Mountain Province had given him a bag of peanuts, which saved him from starvation. He and his family expressed gratitude to everyone involved in the search mission. He felt he had been reborn, and said he would never forget the kindness of the local people.
Unfortunately, there are also dark moments in Philippine-Korea relations. Last year, Korean businessman Jee Ick-joo was abducted in Angeles, Pampanga, and killed inside Camp Crame in Quezon City, the headquarters of the Philippine National Police. Many people, both Koreans and Filipinos, including policemen, attended the funeral to pray for the repose of his soul. The authorities resolved to pursue justice so that his death would serve as an opportunity for Korean nationals in the Philippines to lead peaceful and secure lives.
Yesterday marked the first year since that fateful incident. The trial is still underway. The Korean community is hopeful and believes that the case will soon conclude in the punishment of the wrongdoers. Such is the strength of the bond of friendship between Koreans and Filipinos.
Perhaps it would be good for the story of Moon Soon-deuk to be learned by Filipinos, because it is a reminder of the days when total strangers helped one another, especially in times of crisis. There is hope, as shown by the incredible rescue of Choi Sung-kyu. And as long as instances of goodness and heroism exist
between Korea and the Philippines, bilateral relations will remain strong, and their friendship will endure.
* * *
Joungbihn Park, 17, is a Grade 12 student in Manila.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.