‘Korean wave’ sweeps the Philippines

by Ronald Meinardus

MANILA — The political alliance between the Philippines and South Korea has a long tradition. During the Cold War, both countries were staunch supporters of the United States. The government in Manila was among the first to send troops to the Korean Peninsula to defend the South against the invasion from the communist North.

In today’s globalized world, relations between these Asian neighbors have assumed a very different flavor characterized mainly by an enormous expansion of interactions not related to formal politics or diplomacy.

“The Philippines and Korea are linked by flows and counterflows of people,” said Virginia Miralao of the Philippine Social Science Council in a study on the Korean diaspora in the Philippines.

Today, migratory patterns define the bilateral relations between Seoul and Manila more than diplomatic and possibly even economic relations do. It is, therefore, no coincidence that matters pertaining to the situation of Philippine nationals in South Korea and Korean nationals in the Philippines are high on the agenda whenever the two governments meet for consultations, as was the case with the state visit of Korean President Roh Moo Hyun in Manila.

It is well known that the Philippines has become one of the major exporters of labor on a global scale: The 8 million OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) who earn a living outside the shores of their own country make up 10 percent of the population. Their remittances have become a pillar of the local economy.

Due to a restrictive immigration policy, South Korea is not a preferred destination of Philippine migrant workers. According to media reports, there are about 36,000 Filipinos in South Korea, nearly half of whom are undocumented. It is safe to say that many more Filipinos would like to seek employment in South Korea, if for no other reason than it is a neighboring country that can be reached easily by plane in less than four hours.

Geographic proximity may also explain why so many South Korean tourists choose to come to the Philippines. They are the leading customers in many popular tourist areas such as Boracay, Bohol, Cebu or Palawan. They say they like coming to the Philippines because they know they will receive the famed Philippine hospitality. Their hosts ensure that they will be met and taken care of by Korean-speaking guides, and most hotels and many restaurants provide Korean food, alcoholic beverages and Korean entertainment at night. According to official statistics, 370,000 South Koreans visited the Philippines in 2004. The South Korean Embassy in Manila expects this number to reach half a million this year.

Apart from the short-term tourists who usually stay less than a week, Philippine media estimate the number of South Koreans who choose to permanently live in the country at 46,000. Typically Korean migrants are businessmen or traders, students or missionaries.

“The Koreans and their ubiquitous signage are everywhere,” noted Raul Palabrica in a newspaper article titled “Puzzling inward migration to the Philippines.” The influx, he explained, is motivated by the Korean immigrant’s perception that the Philippines promises “a good future for trade and commerce.” It is hard to overlook the growing number of Korean restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses established in Manila, Cebu and other parts of the Philippines.

One characteristic feature of South Korean immigrants in the Philippines is their desire to stay together. “Wherever Koreans move in large numbers, they create their own enclaves,” said Yoon In Jin, a leading scholar of Korean diaspora studies. As soon as the immigrants accumulate sufficient capital, Yoon said, they invest in their children’s education.

Another focal point of Korean life in the Philippines is the church, he said: “When Koreans emigrate, they establish their own churches and this becomes the center of religious as well as social activities,” he added.

I have heard of some instances in which the churches where already there before the business-oriented migrants came in. There is a growing number of Korean missionaries who come to the Philippines — a predominantly Roman Catholic nation — to attract locals to their Protestant denominations. While the Roman Catholic clergy views these activities with a great sense of suspicion and dismay, many — mostly needy — Filipinos are open to the foreigners.

“The poor go to the Korean churches because they give handouts such as (warm) meals,” said Lorna Makil of Silliman University in Dumaguete, who has conducted field research on the Korean population in her town. According to this scholar, the Korean community in Dumaguete is “a closed group” with very little interaction with the local people. Makil attributes this isolation to communication problems, as initially only very few immigrants know English, not to mention the local dialects.

As time goes by, the language barrier comes down. Today, many South Koreans actually come to the Philippines to learn English either in universities or in one of the numerous private language schools. Some of these institutes cater exclusively to South Korean students.

Meanwhile the Philippines, like other Asian countries, has been swept by what is often termed the “Korean wave,” which is basically a steady stream of Korean soap operas. Prime time on Philippine television has become the time of “Koreanovelas,” said one media watcher. As a result of this you find posters and wallet-size fan photos of Korean soap opera stars in the Philippine markets. At the same time, numerous Filipino singers and musicians are spreading the happy Pinoy mood in South Korea.