Comparisons between South Korea and the Philippines can be tempting. I can’t help but succumb to the temptation after covering this month’s election of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos as president of the Philippines and then observing, via the internet, the inauguration in Seoul the next day of Yoon Suk-yeol as president of the Republic of Korea.
Both South Korea and the Philippines, different though they appear, have adopted forms of democracy, and both have strong historic ties with the United States. Both are American allies, bound to the U.S. by elaborate treaty arrangements after terrible wars, and both have to worry about the overwhelming power of China.
After years of reporting from both countries, however, I’m equally impressed by the differences in culture, society, outlook and aspirations. Those differences are etched clearly in comparing the elections and types of men who got elected.
Bongbong, as he’s universally known, won by such a wide margin that he would appear to be not only hugely popular but also a symbol of hope for a country mired in poverty and corruption. The chances of his battling these dark forces, however, are nil. His father, the late Ferdinand Marcos, ousted in the People Power Revolution of 1985-1986, and his mother, Imelda, were so thoroughly corrupt that it’s beyond imagination to think their son and heir could return the family to Malacanang Palace, from which, covering the “revolution” for USA Today, I saw them being flown away by U.S. helicopters.
How the wheel of history has turned. Bongbong and his 92-year-old mother, two sisters and assorted relatives, will resume occupancy of the palace next month in an atmosphere of triumph, vindication and revenge. Bongbong’s election came about after a massive internet campaign that had been going on for years. He and those around him simply inundated Facebook and every other channel with boasts of all the good his father had done in 20 years in power, half of it after imposing martial law in which tens of thousands were jailed and several thousand killed.
The Marcos family machine said martial law was needed to fight communist revolt and denied the corruption charges as fake news. Many of the cases against Ferdinand Marcos and Imelda are still in the courts in the United States and the Philippines. Bongbong will no doubt get rid of all charges in the Philippines, but he can’t go to the United States as long as he’s in danger of being arrested and hauled into court.
The story of President Yoon’s rise in South Korea could hardly be more different. For one thing, Yoon got elected by the narrowest of margins over a candidate who bore the hopes of the Candlelight Revolution of 2016-2017 that resulted in the impeachment, jailing and ouster of his predecessor, Park Geun-hye. Yoon, like Bongbong, is conservative, but he has a far different vision of how to deal with China and also North Korea.
Bongbong, following in the footsteps of the Philippines’ outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte, is likely to downgrade the U.S. alliance in the interests of resolution of China’s claim to the entire South China Sea. Yoon has pledged to adopt a firm policy toward North Korea, insisting on denuclearization in contrast to the efforts by his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, at striking up dialogue with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
Yoon would also like to reach an accommodation with China but not at the cost of South Korea’s alliance with the United States. That won’t be easy any more than it’s easy for the Philippines, upset by China blockading fishing boats and taking over small islets, to get along with the Chinese.
Basic attitudes, however, differentiate Bongbong from Yoon. Scholar Paul Hutchcroft in a chapter for a book published more than a decade ago, compares the “developmental achievements” of Park Geun-hye’s father, the long-ruling, dictatorial Park Chung-hee, with the “predatory debacle in the Philippines” of Bongbong’s father, the equally long-ruling dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
“While Park is recalled for things both ‘admirable and appalling,’” he wrote, “Marcos’s name tends to bring forth almost entirely unambiguous memories of brutality, looting and decay.” Having come to power “under extremely favorable circumstances,” Hutchcroft said, “he systematically plundered his country and subverted its institutions for his own self-aggrandizing goals.”
That’s where South Korea and the Philippines are so different. Korea may face similar issues but not on such an horrendous scale. Yoon has assumed office unfettered by family ties while Bongbong continues in the tradition of a family steeped in corruption and power-grabbing. If Korea is a democracy, the Philippines is a kleptocracy.