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Why Korea matters

Relationships between Filipinos and East Asians — the Chinese, Japanese, South Koreans and most especially North Koreans — have always been a mix of feelings. On one hand, Filipinos are to be found all over East Asia, the numbers fluctuating depending on the labor market and the mood of the governments involved.

Let’s not forget our ties with many East Asians are intimate, in the literal sense of the word. Many Filipinos, women in particular, are married to East Asians. In addition, we have close to 200,000 caring for children of the Chinese in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and mainland China. There is an emerging market in China for Filipinos teaching English in schools.

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Our perceptions of Koreans are shaped mainly by the expatriates who are here, many settling in for the long term, but not permanently. We have “Koreatowns” in so many of our urban areas, the children enrolled in our schools as well as in English learning centers.

The Koreans in the Philippines tend to be quite insular though, keeping to themselves with their own groceries, churches, even clinics.

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So close, and yet so distant. Except for occasional forays into Korean restaurants, we know little about Korean culture. I still have friends, even among professors in UP who are startled when I tell them close to a third of South Koreans are Christian, and fervently so.

It’s not surprising that last Friday’s historic meeting between North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in didn’t seem to interest Filipinos. In fact, I’m under the impression that Kim Jong-un’s saber-rattling and threats of nuclear attacks, which kept escalating last year, caught more attention than the peace overtures last week.

Continuing Korean War

I nearly missed one of my meetings because the news coverage was early in the morning, with a fascinating display of symbols that anthropologists love, and which our diplomats and journalists should learn to read, but I’ll save a write-up for Friday and do a historical piece today about Philippine involvement in the Korean War from 1950 to 1953.

Those of you who serve in government would have recognized immediately that just as you are retiring this year on your 65th birthday, the Korean peace brokers saw too this would be a good year to truly end the Korean War. In 1953, what happened was an armistice; the war between the North and the South never really ended but Kim and Moon agreed last week that they should soon formally end that conflict.

The war is usually described as one between a communist North and a democratic South. Like the Vietnam War, terms can be deceptive—governments in South Korea have not exactly been epitomes of democracy and, in fact, there were long stretches of brutal dictatorships declared in the name of fighting communism.

Also forgotten was that at the end of World War II, Korea was under the Japanese.

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The Korean Peninsula was then divided, the North going to the Soviet Union and the South to the Americans and, eventually, two independent Koreas—the North with Chinese and Soviet Union support, and the South with the Americans.

After many border skirmishes, the North invaded the South on June 25, 1950, and war broke out. A joint study conducted by Stanford University and the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo estimates some 1.2 million casualties from that war, mainly Koreans, Americans and Chinese. Among the casualties were 112 Filipino soldiers killed in action and at least 27 missing in action (I could only find figures for two of the battles fought).

During the Korean War, the Philippines deployed 7,420 troops, Filipino soldiers involved in combat duty. Two battles were particularly fierce — Yultung and Hill Eerie — involving direct encounters with communist Chinese troops.

Peftok

Retired UP faculty Lily Ann Polo has the most comprehensive analytical article on our involvement that was published in Asian Studies in 1982. The title tells it all: “Philippine Involvement in the Korean War: A Footnote to RP-US Relations.” (The full article is available online.)

It turns out our president at that time, Elipidio Quirino, was actually not in favor of Philippine involvement in the war, preferring instead a neutral position. Quirino was worried about antagonizing China, where the communists had just come into power in 1949, and the Soviet Union.

Quirino said the Philippines would not intervene if other countries “of their own free will choose to turn communists.” He was more concerned about fighting a local communist movement, the Huks, and responding to the Philippines’ postwar
economic problems.

Quirino had his supporters, including a senator named Arsenio Lacson, later to become mayor of Manila.

But Quirino came under pressure from Filipino politicians who were more aligned with the United States. Camilo Osias
attacked Quirino’s “effeminate foreign policy” and said we needed to take the side of democratic forces. The Philippine ambassador to the United States, Miguel Elizalde, was more frank in pointing out that if the Philippines could send “even one battalion,” it would help the deliberations of the US Congress on economic aid, which we badly needed for postwar reconstruction.

Polo refers to a “war scare” which was actually more of a red scare, with fears of communists taking over the region. The second World War was still fresh in people’s minds and there was also a real concern of a new war.

In the end, the government agreed to deploy a Philippine Expeditionary Force to Korea (Peftok). We were the first Asian country to send combat troops into Korea and, after the Battle of Yultong, where our soldiers stayed on fighting even as Allied troops withdrew, their battalion acquired the name “Fighting Filipinos.”

A historical footnote: One of the Filipino war correspondents who went to cover the Korean War was a young student from Ateneo, who was only a few months short of his 18th birthday. His name was Benigno Aquino Jr. Yes, Ninoy.

Times have changed, as has the technology for war. If a new Korean war breaks out, we probably will not be involved in terms of ground combat troops, but a new war could be worse, with or without direct Philippine involvement. Remember Kim threatening to send nuclear missiles to Guam, the closest US territory? Easily, it could be other targets identified because of alignment with the United States. There’s Taiwan, and the Philippines.

I actually doubt that will ever happen. At this point, we need to worry more about the next moves of other “players”: the United States and China. US President Donald Trump has agreed to meet with Kim and Moon as early as in May, and there is talk this might be in a Southeast Asian country.

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TAGS: Elpidio Quirino, Korean agreement, Korean peninsula, Korean War, Michael l. tan, Pinly Kasi
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