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What Duterte wants from Korea

June 05,2018
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President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, left, with Jeon Jei-guk, head of Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration, on his way to a summit meeting on Monday with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. [YONHAP]
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Chun Young-gi
*The author is a columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines is one of the oldest heads of state, but he has a youthful demeanor. When he arrived in Korea on Sunday, he wore a black leather jacket and no tie. As he passed by honor guards, he looked like a detective going after organized gangs.

Duterte was a rebellious teenager raised by a stern father who was also a politician. He enjoys cars, motorcycles and guns. He was expelled twice from high school, and despite his small stature, he is fearless in a fight.

The president had a summit and dinner with South Korea’s Moon Jae-in on Monday. Two years ago, he acted strangely by putting his hands in his pockets and chewing gum during his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, but diplomatic sources say Duterte actually becomes serious, humble and sweet when a summit begins.

It is Duterte’s dream to restore the image of his country, which has been suffering from poverty, to the “Pearl of the Orient Seas.” What he wants to learn most from Korea is how the country achieved its economic miracle.

Interestingly, Jeon Jei-guk, head of the Defense Acquisition Program Administration, received Duterte when he arrived in Korea. It is a symbolic sign of where his highest interest lies.

The Defense Acquisition Program Administration is a government office that sells Korean-built weapons to foreign countries. The Philippine leader wants to introduce Korean fighter jets, speedboats and submarines to his country.

Military experts say Duterte has a plan to fight China’s militarization and reclamation in the West Philippine Sea (or South China Sea, depending on whom you ask). The Scarborough Shoal is located 145 miles from the Subic Bay of the Philippines and 575 miles from China’s Hainan Island. Taking into account the distance only, it is a territory of the Philippines.

During the 40 years of U.S. military presence in the Philippines, China never dreamed of making a territorial claim on the Scarborough Shoal. The situation changed in 1992 when the Philippine legislature shot down a bill to extend the stationing of U.S. forces as a result of an anti-American movement.

As U.S. troops withdrew in shock, China started to stake a claim. In 2012, China built a runway on the Scarborough Shoal and used it for the takeoff and landing of its H-6 bombers. Chinese battleships and fishing boats also made visits. Soon after, the Scarborough Shoal was under Chinese control. The people of the Philippines had no means of stopping the move. All they could do was make verbal protests.

The Philippines only has 100,000 troops, its economic power is ranked around 100th in the world and its politics are in chaos. It is not in a position to fight against China.

The country is not just a threat. It is a benefactor that provides the Philippines with tens of billions of dollars in aid whenever necessary. Even Duterte has admitted that the Philippines has no power to win a war against China, and now is not the right time to fight. He is waiting to create an opportunity and trying to bolster his country’s power by reviving its economy.

Until the 1960s, the Philippines was a rich country comparable to Japan. Under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos from 1965 to 1986, the people suffered prolonged poverty. After U.S. troops withdrew in 1992 in the aftermath of a populist democratization movement, the country faced another crisis.

Korea narrowly missed the failures of the Philippines. Now, it is one of the wealthiest and strongest countries in Asia. But it must be careful. It takes just a second to fall.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 4, Page 30