Death in 'El Dorado'
Whenever I invite foreigners to the Philippines, most of them would ask me the same question: "Is it safe there?" I would always laugh at their worrisome question and mention to them that they are not the only reluctant visitors I have encountered. I would constantly assure them that it is the work of exaggerated media reporting, and though security might not be good, it is not the worst also. And then here goes the latest news that another Korean national was murdered and this time around, the case shockingly and evidently involved police officers.
When you ask Koreans who love living in the Philippines about what made them eventually stay here, a lot of them, including yours truly, will reply that it is mainly due to the people: the loving, caring, hospitable, and beautiful Filipinos. They are one of the major reasons why many Koreans feel blessed living in the country.
Senior Koreans will also still reminisce and keep returning, thanks to the Filipinos who helped Korea in its trying times, especially during and after the Korean War. Many Filipinos may not be aware of it, but there is plenty of evidence in Korean history that the Philippines was positively viewed as a model economy to follow, and that Korea received so much aid from the Philippine government to rebuild the nation after the war.
In one of the TV documentaries that I watched about 10 years ago, one Korean back home described the Philippines as "El Dorado," as if it were the land of gold where every good opportunity can be found. After going through the Asian financial crisis, many clueless Koreans tried their luck abroad and the Philippines was one of the most sought-after countries for them. It's relatively near, the weather is mild, the people speak English – which is the best condition to raise their children – and the standard of living seems more manageable than in Korea.
Many Koreans flocked to the country starting the late 90s and it has been a steady, fast growth for the Korean community in the Philippines since. Now, Korean citizens are visible in nearly every corner of the archipelago. Koreans are one of the top foreign visitors to the Philippines and are also among the top in terms of making long-term investments in the country. The government's strategic policy to invite retirees was also attractive enough to turn the Korean exodus into a reality.
The murky, risky side
But this El Dorado did not just bring happiness; it also showed the murky and risky side of life. If you count the number of Korean media reports about the Philippines and what most are about, as a Filipino, you may be pretty surprised and dismayed.
In most news reports in Korea, the Philippines is reported as the place with the biggest number of Koreans missing, kidnapped, and killed. Every few months, it is common to hear cases of serious crimes. In some of these cases, however, fellow Korean citizens are implicated. They are usually accused of plotting murder, sometimes with local accomplices. This is the reason why Koreans would jokingly say that fellow Koreans are the worst breed of people you should be aware of when heading abroad.
However, it should be noted that there are also serious incidents where Korean residents or tourists are victimized by the locals. The number of Korean murder cases continues to increase each year.
So, is the recent kidnap-slay case simply just one of them? Was businessman Jee Ick Joo just unfortunate to be victimized? There must be a thorough probe into how he was found by his alleged kidnappers – the cops – and why he was killed and cremated. Was it simply just for the ransom?
Is it safe to be in the Philippines?
Going back to the earlier question: Is it safe to be in the Philippines? Yes or no? I am pretty much assuming what you may say. You may think it is not really safe for residents here.
It saddens me so much whenever I hear friends here say that the country does not provide a complete sense of security. There is a joke that there is no backpack carried on the back in the Philippines because everyone cuddles their bag in front for fear of getting robbed. The fact that travelers also went through all the fuss of wrapping their luggage during the "laglag bala" days is not even funny.
It is a basic right for citizens and a basic duty of the government to provide a safe and sound society. Being from abroad, I often restrain myself from speaking out because I do not want to offend anyone here. But as I see endless crimes taking away locals' as well as fellow Koreans' lives, it feels unbearable and scary at the same time, because we don't know who the next victims would be.
The Duterte administration has intensified its war against drugs. Some are wary because of the ruthless and unjust killings in the process. Only if it is done right, and only if the national police do honest-to-goodness jobs, can it be a wonderful system to prove that the current administration's decision was tough, yet fruitful. But what happens when law enforcers are the ones accused of taking money in exchange for a human being's life?
The Korean government is reportedly taking action to establish a system so Korean residents in the Philippines will not be scammed by fake arrest warrants and they will not be victimized by the "TokHang for ransom" modus. It was also said that the embassy will assist Korean citizens and that Korean police officers sent to the Philippines will coordinate with the PNP.
The Korean government, perhaps due to its own political scandal, is not protesting enough diplomatically, and has thus been criticized by its citizens. Surely, the Korean government should work hard to protect its citizens overseas, but it is also hoped that the Philippine government takes Jee's murder case seriously and ensures security for other Koreans in the Philippines. We also need protection just like locals here in the country. – Rappler.com
Kyungmin Bae is a senior lecturer of the Department of Linguistics and a research fellow of the Korea Research Center at the University of the Philippines-Diliman.