By Publisher Lee Kyung-sik, Vice Chairman Kim Jin-man, Editor Kevin Lee
Newly accredited ambassador of the Republic of Philippines in Seoul, Madam Maria Theresa B. Dizon-De Vega, reminds the Korean people of one of the most active Philippines ambassadors in Seoul, Ambassador Francisco L. Benedicto who served in Korea from June 14, 1993 to May 16, 1995. Many Koreans agree that during that period of his service in Korea bilateral relations, cooperation and friendship flourished in the highest degree.
And 16 years later today, it appears that the two countries are in for another Golden Time of win-win cooperation and friendship—with the newly accredited lady ambassador, Mme. De Vega in place. All in all, Korea and the Philippines are in for another period of most active cooperation in all areas between the two countries.
Here are details of our latest interview with Ambassador De Vega:
Question: As Your Excellency has been newly accredited to Korea as the Ambassador of the Republic of Philippines, please introduce yourself in detail, including your career, family and hobbies.
Answer: I am career diplomat of over 27 years. Prior to joining the Philippines diplomatic service, I was a faculty member of the Department of English Studies and Comparative Literature of my alma mater, the University of the Philippines.
I always say I am an “accidental diplomat” in that I had never really planned on a career in diplomacy and just happened to take the competitive Foreign Service Officer Examinations (placing first overall in 1993) upon the request of a close family friend who was among the first women career diplomats in the Philippines.
I am also a lawyer by training which I find very useful in my work which involves international law and also knowledge of relevant Philippines laws which may affect our Filipino nationals overseas.
I have been posted to Mexico, Hong Kong SAR, the United Kingdom, New York--USA, Germany, and now Korea. Each of these postings have provided me with an opportunity to serve my country and people as well as to promote better understanding among countries and cultures.
Aside from my work in the Department of Foreign Affairs, I likewise serve in the Film Development Council of the Philippines, representing the Foreign Affairs Department. Film is one of my abiding passions and this work allows me to help in some small measure to the development of the Philippines film industry.
Along with films, I am a certified book worm. I used to be able to read 1 book a week but this has taken a backseat to work and parenting but I still try my best to read 1-2 new books a month. I also like watching international series (including Korean drama series and films), listening to all kinds of music but with a particular fondness for classical, jazz, and alternative music. I also like to do crafts from time to time and recently took up watercolor painting during the pandemic.
I am quite active on social media where I maintain accounts on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
My husband is also a diplomat-lawyer and is currently the Philippines Ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg, and represents the Philippines in its engagements with the European Union. We have a young daughter Montserrat.
Q: What are the latest developments in your country. Please introduce them in detail.
A: The Philippines economy expanded by 7.1 percent from July to September 2021, among the highest third quarter growths in ASEAN and the Asian region despite the pandemic, boosting optimism about the Philippines staging a strong recovery next year
The Covid situation is likewise improving with less than 1,000 new cases starting in early December 2021 and a rising vaccination rate. As of the start of December 2021, over 86.4 million vaccine doses have been administered, with the Philippines ranking 19th out of 205 counties and territories globally in total doses administered. Booster shots are now being administered for frontline health workers, seniors, and persons with comorbidities. Vaccination of minors ages 12-17 years old is also ongoing.
We have also prepared for the possible re-opening of the country to foreign tourists with tourism sector workers classified as part of the vaccine priority sector. In the meantime, we have likewise prioritized vaccination of Filipinos working overseas such as in Korea.
Overall, we are optimistic about developments in the country and a rebound from the pandemic as our infrastructure program remained active even in the midst of the pandemic and we have instituted economic reforms to further growth. We are returning to pilot in-person classes to ensure that our students, among the youngest and most capable in the world, continue to be informed, trained, and educated.
Q: Please introduce your Head of Government in detail, including his/her major achievements.
A: Our head of government is President Rodrigo Roa Duterte who began his term in office
on 30 June 2016. He was one of the longest serving Mayors of a major city in the Philippines – Davao City- a place he has helped transform into a modern, peaceful, and model city in the Philippines. He has undertaken an Official Visit to Korea in 2018 and once again met with President Moon Jae-in in Busan for the ASEAN-ROK Commemorative Summit in 2019 when they both committed to elevate Philippines-ROK relationship to a strategic partnership.
For the Philippines, we envision the strategic partnership to include increased high-level engagements, closer maritime cooperation, increased collaboration in addressing common security challenges, expanded cooperation in trade and investments, in science and technology, and closer people-to-people connectivity. The conclusion of negotiations for a Philippines-Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in October 2021 is envisioned to provide a platform for the post-pandemic recovery of our economic engagement.
While President Duterte’s term is ending in less than six months, the last six years of his administration saw the following significant accomplishments, among others:
The rapid acceleration of defense procurement in the Philippines AFP modernization plan (Horizons II and III). The Republic of Korea is one of our major defense procurement partners, and cooperation in this area is immense. We look forward to continued and concrete partnerships in defense, the same solid bond that marked the strong alliance of our countries in the past.
Korea has been pivotal to the ongoing effort to upgrade the Philippines’ military capabilities and defense posture, being one of the country’s major sources of equipment and platforms such as fighter aircraft, patrol ships, cargo and troop carrier trucks, assault rifles and ammunitions.
Two 2,600-ton multi-mission frigates have been delivered to the Philippines from ROK from 2020 to 2021. The frigates were ordered by the Philippines Navy from the ROK’s Hyundai Heavy Industries, and are deliverables of the frigate-acquisition project in 2013 worth PhP 16 billion.
The first frigate, BRP Jose Rizal, arrived last May 2020 and was commissioned on 10 July 2020. The second frigate, BRP Antonio Luna, arrived at Subic Bay on 09 February 2021, and was commissioned on 19 March 2021 at South Harbor, Manila. The frigates are capable of surface, sub-surface, air, and electronic warfare using state-of-the-art electronic sensors, long-range missiles, acoustic guided torpedoes, and an embarked anti-submarine helicopter.
BRP Jose Rizal (FF-150) and BRP Antonio Luna (FF-151) would be deployed only to specific missions, as ordered by the Armed Forces of the Philippines. They will conduct sovereignty patrols and show-the-flag missions covering the whole archipelago with a focus on external defense. They will also participate in naval exercises in the Philippines and abroad to hone the skills of the crew in naval manuevers. On 05 September 2019, the ROK had earlier handed over to the Philippines Navy a Pohang-class corvette that has since been renamed BRP Conrado Yap (Patrol Ship 39). It is considered “the most powerful surface combat” ship in the Philippines fleet, being equipped with anti-surface, anti-submarine and anti-air warfare capabilities.
Focused Tax Reform Program, which made the Philippines one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia. The Comprehensive Tax Reform Program is the largest fiscal stimulus for businesses in recent history, projected to provide private enterprises more than P1 trillion worth of tax relief over the next 10 years. In addition, it is a boon to MSMEs with the reduction of corporate income tax rate from 30 percent, to 20 percent, the largest ever reduction in the country. This law rationalizes fiscal incentives and creates an enhanced incentives package that is performance-based, time- bound, targeted, and transparent.
The Build Build Build infrastructure program which raised infrastructure program spending to an average of 5.14 percent of GDP, the highest in decades. President Duterte poured more money into infrastructure -- over P6 trillion in six years -- than any President before him, In the last five years alone, the Philippines has built 145,000 classrooms, 2,000 school buildings, 5,555 bridges, and 26,500 kms. of roads, access roads, expressways, and tollways.
In addition, mass transportation is more safe, reliable, and available through increased shipping routes from 120 (servicing 223 ships and 2.8 million vehicles) in 2016 to 181 by 2020. The Philippines also completed more than 200 airport projects, 400 ports, and 21 new lighthouses. New airport terminals were built for Mactan, Clark, Ormoc, and Kalibo. The Bicol International Airport project was restarted after an 11-year delay. There are also recently completed and ongoing bridges projects throughout the country.
Expanded the access of Filipinos to quality and equitable tertiary education through RA no. 10931 or the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act, which was signed on August 3, 2017. This law provides various financial assistance and scholarships to student beneficiaries in state universities and colleges and local universities and colleges (SUCs and LUCs). This law, among others, institutionalized the Free Higher Education (FHE), Tertiary Education Subsidy (TES), Student Loan Program, and Free Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET).
An independent and strategic foreign policy based on the principle of “friend to all, enemy to none”.
Reduced red tape with the passage of laws on Anti-Red Tape and Ease of Doing Business as well as the Revised Business Permit and Licensing System (BPLS)
Provision of Universal health care with the Universal Health Care Act as well as building a public health infrastructure. Insurance coverage expanded from 90 percent of the population to 100 percent. COVID-19 while too complex to contain, led to 9,000 new treatment facilities with 140,000-bed capacity and 36 million in vaccine arrivals. A Philippines Center for Disease Control is planned and a Virology Institute is now in the early stages of establishment.
Q: What is the present volume of bilateral trade, its outlook in the next 12 months?
A: Based on the data of our National Statistics Office, the total trade between the Philippines and Korea in 2020 was at US$9.75 Bil down from US$11.72 Bil in 2019 which was expected because the manufacturing slowdown last year due to global supply chain concerns as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic. Our imports from Korea in 2020 was valued at $6.89 Bil while the Philippines exported US 2.85 Bil worth of products. I am confident that in 2021, our trade figures will be higher than last year with the gradual easing of restrictions in the manufacturing sector for the better part of 2021.
With the target effectivity of the PH-ROK Free Trade Agreement in 2022, we are hopeful that trade will further increase in 2022 hopefully closer to the level of 2019 figures.
Overall, our economic and development cooperation relations are better than ever. In 2020, the Republic of Korea was the 5th major trading partner of the Philippines (out of 225 trading partners), 7th biggest export market (out of 213 markets) and 4th largest import supplier (out of 205 suppliers). Korea is also one of our top investments-source countries and ODA partners.
Q: What are the areas in your country where you want Korean companies to invest and what are the areas where you wish your businessmen to invest in Korea?
A: We value the investments of Korea in the Philippines and acknowledge the benefits that we also receive through the advanced technology of Korea. The Philippines aside from being an attractive investment destination due to our workforce, incentives and marker access advantage, also has a huge consumer market.
Food Processing is one area where we are getting a lot of interest from Korean companies. With the abundance of raw materials and a variety of locations to choose from in our 7,641 islands, there are opportunities for packaged food, food ingredients and even pet food. Some products Korean may wish to manufacture in the Philippines include kimchi, root crops (cassava, sweet potato)-based products, home meal replacement and fruit-based products.
High value Manufacturing is another area that Korean companies should strongly consider as the Philippines has a long track record in manufacturing and a capable work force to support the sector. High value manufacturing can include Electronics and Semiconductor, Vehicle and vehicle parts and medical devices. The Ph-Kr FTA once effective will provide for better market access vehicle related parts and products which will make it more attractive to invest in the Philippines. We also have the Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises Act or CREATE which allows us to be flexible in providing incentives to strategic investment in our country.
The Build Build Build Program remains the flagship economic program the Philippines government and we have seen a number of Korean companies take part in different activities in transportation, roads and bridges, and energy. Opportunities also include smart city development and renewable energy.
In Korea, Philippines companies can invest in food and tourism related activities.
I encourage the Korean companies to learn more about these opportunities by contacting our Philippines Trade and Investment Center at the Philippines Embassy.
Q: What are your competitive products and/over services attractive to Korea? Who are the companies of your country exporting your products to Korea?
A: Most of our exports from Korea are industrial products which are investment driven. These are mostly Korean companies that have established operations in our export zone for manufacturing activities. Products include electrical and electronic machinery and semiconductor devices manufactured.
Our fresh fruits like bananas, pineapples and mangoes as well as products like banana chips, coconut oil, coconut water, dried fruits, desiccated coconut, snack foods and calamansi products remain to be popular with consumers.
We have also developed trendy products from Cacao which are sold in mainstream and trendy shops in Korea. We have also been granted market access for okra or lady finger and have started to export this year.
The Philippines is also becoming a source of quality processed ingredients that Koreans can used in healthy and natural food, wellness and beauty products. Popular items include moringa powder, moscovado sugar, coconut powder and sugar, and calamansi powder. Items like pili oil and elemie oil are also starting to gain some interest especially for beauty products.
Services is one area where the Philippines is very competitive. Koreans can take advantage of our strength in business process outsourcing, health information management and creative services which we are globally known for.
Various Philippines food products, manufacturers, fresh fruit and vegetables companies export items to Korea.
Q: What are the Korean products and services that your country might wish to consider important?
A: Korea is a source of strategic imports for the Philippines. We acknowledge the importance of products from Korea that we are using for our infrastructure development and inputs to manufacturing activities.
Q: Nowadays, economic cooperation is very important between the countries. Who are the major Korean companies actively engaged in bilateral economic cooperation? Please introduce them in detail in the order of size and scale of business activities.
A: For Economic cooperation, it usually starts with government-to-government initiatives. KEXIM bank for example has engaged with our Economic Team for ODA and Loans to support our infrastructure development in the Philippines.
We also have engagements with the Ministry of Trade Industry and Energy through the Korea Institute for Advancement in Technology for ODA products related to Mold and Die, Renewable Energy, Food and Smart Farming.
There’s also a feasibility study through the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transportation to establish a smart city in partnership with our Clark Development Corporation. Eubiologics, which is a vaccine manufacturer in Korea, is now about to complete their Covid 19 vaccine phase 2 trials, and is also keen on engaging with the Philippines for vaccine trials, supply and manufacturing through their local partner.
In the meantime some noted Korean companies such as Samsung Electro Mechanics - Electronic parts, SFA Semicon - Electronic Parts, Daeduck Electronics - Electronic Parts, Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) – Energy, Poongsan Corporation - Semiconductors parts, CJ Corporation – Logistics, and Bolim - Vehicle Parts continue to have a presence in the Philippines.
Q: Korean people, especially the up-and-coming Korean businessmen need rest and recuperation. What are your tourist attractions?
A: We recommend Palawan for green tourism and sustainable travel, rest and relaxation. Palawan, the 5th largest island in the Philippines, is made up of 1,780 islands. About 80 km northwest of downtown Puerto Princesa, Palawan, where the international airport is located, people can reach the Saint Paul Mountain Range, where the Subterranean River National Park is located.
Palawan has been named “World’s Best Island” several times over by prestigious international travel publications such as Travel+Leisure. This is largely due to its natural beauty, the wealth of activities for visitors, and the warm hospitality of Filipinos.
Puerto Princesa is also known as “The City in a Forest” for its breathtaking views and it covers a large area with a lot of natural, cultural, and historical sites that local and international visitors can explore.
The highlight of a trip to Palawan is undoubtedly the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park. Located in the center of Palawan, it has been designated as a 'UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site' and a 'Seven Natural Wonders of the World' thanks to this mystical landscape with an 8.2 km-long limestone karst landscape along the world's longest 'underground river'. The best way to fully enjoy the charm of this place is to board a “small boat”. A two-hour boat ride along the waterway takes you to majestic limestone caves, numerous stalactites, stalagmites, and cliffs that have been formed over tens of thousands of years.
However, in order to protect nature and ecosystem, only 1,200 people per day are allowed to enter the underground river. Of the 8.2 km length of the underground river, only 1.5 km section is open to tourists. There is an audio guide in Korean language.
To get to the national park, people drive about 80 km from Puerto Princesa Airport or San Jose Terminal for 1 to 2 hours to Sabang Beach and take a boat bound for the national park. Palawan international airport is located in Puerto Princesa City, and it takes about 1 hour and 20 minutes by domestic flight from Manila to Puerto Princesa.
Things to do in Puerto Princesa:
Experience the Underground River of Palawan (audio guides in Korean are available)
Island hopping in Honda Bay
Watch fireflies alongside the river
Visit Crocodile Farm and Butterfly Garden
Best time to go:
Recommended to visit Puerto Princesa during dry season before heavy rains start. Best recommended to visit between March to May.
Aside from Palawan, there are also other top destinations in the Philippines from Cebu for its cultural and leisure activities, Bohol for its unique natural beauty, Clark for golf and leisure to newer attractions like the Bicol Region where a new international airport was recently completed.
Q: What are the most important festive days in your country? Please elaborate.
A: The most important festive time in the Philippines calendar is undoubtedly the Christmas season, reputedly one of the longest, if not the longest in the world. In the Philippines as early as the first of September, holiday music is already played on the radio and stores already start decorating for the Christmas season. This lasts until the Feast of The Three Kings in early January.
Aside from Christmas, festivals and fiestas are important occasions for the Philippines especially in different regions where a number of big festivals such as the Sinulog of Cebu (religious and cultural festival), the Masskara of Bacolod (mask and dance festival), the Ati-Atihan (folk festival) of Aklan, the Panabenga (flower) festival in Baguio, the Pahiyas (harvest festival) in Quezon, and the Kadayawan (thanksgiving festival) in Davao and many others take place throughout the year.
Because of our multi-ethnic society, we also observe Filipino-Muslim feast days as well as the Lunar or Chinese New Year with the Filipino-Chinese community.
Q: Do you have Honorary Consul(s) in Korea? If yes, how are they contributing to the promotion of cooperation and friendship between the two countries?
A: Yes, we have an Honorary Consul General in Busan, Mr. Kim Yongkyu. Busan is a very important area for the Philippines as many of our nationals work and live in Busan and in other nearby areas. Likewise, Busan is an important hub for business, particularly for the innovation, the creative industries sector, and tourism, all emerging areas of engagement between the Philippines and Korea. It likewise has the ASEAN Culture House where many Philippines artifacts and items are on permanent display. We are likewise working on a partnership with Busan University of Foreign Studies on advancing Philippines Studies in Korea.
Q: Please add whatever other details that Your Excellency might consider to be important.
A: The strong ties between the Philippines and Korea are forever anchored on our shared sacrifices during the Korean War. This year we commemorated the 71st anniversary of the sending the Philippines Expeditionary Force to Korea or PEFTOK. In a simple but meaningful ceremony held at the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul, we paid tribute to the brave and courageous Filipinos and their comrades from Korea and other nations, who all stood shoulder to shoulder in defense of freedom and peace.
Through the decades, the importance of this deep bond has not diminished. In fact, it has contributed significantly to the present dynamism between our relations as both our countries are tested by the challenges of a pandemic, climate change, and other concerns which threaten the peace and progress we have secured for our peoples. Our pandemic cooperation, active bilateral relations, and our people-to-people exchanges continue to manifest our solidarity and commitment to our long-term goals of a prosperous, secure, and sustainable future for our countries and the rest of the world.