MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – President Benigno Aquino III is in South Korea Thursday, October 17, for a state visit to further strengthen ties with one of Asia's economic powerhouses.
Aquino and his entourage left aboard a chartered Philippine Airlines flight Thursday morning, from the NAIA Terminal 2. Officials accompanying Aquino include Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima, Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, and Trade Secretary Gregory Domingo.
Senate President Franklin Drilon and Cabinet Secreatary Rene Almendras were also on the trip.
Vice President Jejomar Binay led the send-off party, along with Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, and Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman.
In his departure statement, Aquino said he decided to push through with the visit to strengthen diplomatic and economic ties, as well as tourism relations, with South Korea.
"Tayo ngayon naman ay tutungo sa South Korea upang asikasuhin naman ang kinabukasan habang inaasikason natin ang kasalukuyan," he said.
(We will now head to South Korea to work for our future, while we take care of the present.)
He arrived in Seoul around noon Philippine time.
Aquino will be the first foreign leader to have a state visit since South Korean President Park Geun-Hye took office in February this year.
Among the highlights of the two-day trip will be the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Philippines and South Korea on defense cooperation.
The MOU "will cover a wide range of cooperation from exchange of visits by military personnel and experts to humanitarian assistance and international peacekeeping activities," Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Raul Hernandez said Monday, October 14.
Aquino and Park are also scheduled to hold bilateral talks at the Blue House, the official residence of the Korean leader, covering a range of topics that include political dialogue, trade, official development assistance, people-to-people exchanges, as well as regional issues. Park is also hosting a state dinner in honor of Aquino.
The Philippine leader is also set to meet with members of the Korean business community to discuss investment opportunities in the country.
He is also scheduled to meet with the Filipino community there, highlighted by the conferment of the Order of Lakandula on Jasmine Bacurnay-Lee, the first naturalized Korean to be elected to the Korean National Assembly.
The Korean government is also set to honor the President's father, Benigno Aquino Jr., during the trip. The slain senator was a war correspondent during the Korean War.
Trip pushing through despite Visayas disaster
Aquino's trip pushed through amid relief and recovery efforts in quake-hit areas in Central Visayas. He earlier said it was a prior commitment he should honor.
Before leaving for the East Asian nation, Aquino first visited the quake zone Wednesday, October 16, where he assessed the damage and assured survivors that help is on the way.
The President earlier explained that the invitation from South Korea has been extended several times already, by two presidents – first by Lee Myung-Bak, then by his successor Park. Canceling it could affect ties, Aquino said.
The Republic of Korea is one of the Philippines' main trade partners, and a key source of foreign tourists in the archipelago.
Philippine Ambassador to South Korea Luis Cruz said the Philippines is one of 3 countries identified by Park as "target of intensified cooperation, especially in the area of economic cooperation."
"Korea terms this as the VIPs: V for Vietnam, I for Indonesia, and P for the Philippines," Cruz was quoted by the Philippine News Agency as saying.
The two countries first established relations back in 1949, after the Philippine Expeditionary Forces to Korea (PEFTOK) joined the UN-led coalition during the 1950 Korean War.
South Korea is also home to around 45,000 Filipinos, most of them factory workers, professionals, students, entertainers, and spouses of Koreans.
South Korea is the third country on Aquino's travel schedule this October. He earlier visited Indonesia and Brunei, where he attended two regional summits.
Aquino is expected to be back in the country Friday evening, October 18. – With reports from KD Suarez/Rappler.com