US Ambassador Sung Yong Kim Shares His Fondest Memories From Four Years In The Philippines
A few months before, the newly-installed Filipino leader took to task then-American President Barack Obama for the concern that the latter expressed regarding alleged human rights violations related to Duterte’s bloody anti-drug campaign.
But according to reports, the official function lasted more than an hour. Worried observers heaved a sigh of relief; clearly, Ambassador Kim has a disarming way about him. A popular opinion quickly formed: here was the best man to fill such an important role in so sensitive a time.
After almost three years, the ambassador looks back to this first task of focusing on the two new administrations—Donald Trump’s and Duterte’s—that did not only involve him directly but were starting around the same time his assignment to the Philippines was. “Even among best friends, when the circumstances are new, you want to make sure that things start off on the right foot,” he explains. “I just wanted to make sure that the two new administrations, in Washington and in Manila, would get off on a positive, stable track.” He quickly clarifies that he could not have done it alone and acknowledges the help of close friends in the Philippine government as well as his colleagues and superiors in Washington.
Ambassador Kim is, true to form, impeccably dressed in a barong as he welcomed us into his official residence. He is finishing up his tour of duty here after which he will go to Indonesia for his new diplomatic assignment. Already, the farewell parties are fighting for space in his calendar. “I have to keep reminding my friends that I am not leaving just yet, so we don’t have to rush all the farewell parties,” he candidly says.
If he can only find some time in between the despedidas, he would like to tick off some more items on his to-do list. High up are two more trips outside Manila to revisit two of his most favourite places: Baguio and Palawan. “Baguio is a special place, with a meaningful history for us; Palawan is such a beautiful place and I have fallen in love with it,” he comments.
He then mentions something that Filipinos often hear: “And I will miss the people the most.” Without skipping a beat, he adds: “You know, we say that all the time; but I have been truly impressed by the warmth of the Filipino people.”
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The feeling is mutual, and the ambassador must know this as well. The Asian-American diplomat (he was born in Seoul, South Korea and grew up in Los Angeles, California) endeared himself to Philippine society almost instantly, with a potent combination of simplicity, amiability, and diplomatic achievements. One such coup that happened during his watch was the return of the Balangiga bells, which Ambassador Kim cherishes as “a very proud moment.”
The three bells were taken by the US Army from the church of Balangiga in Samar province as war trophies. The Philippines has been trying to get them back as they represent an important event during the Philippine-American War; the effort paid off after 117 years. “It’s always rewarding to be able to resolve our standing issues, issues that we have been working on for years and decades. The return of the Balangiga bells was a very special moment for the relationship,” Ambassador Kim says.
In equal measure with proud moments are sentimental ones for this diplomat with a strong background in law, holding a Master of Laws degree from the London School of Economics. He shares one meaningful visit to Marawi City, after the five-month long armed conflict between government forces and Muslim militants. “I had the chance to visit a school in Marawi and I was really deeply touched by the commitment of the teachers and the high spirit of the students,” he declares.
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One of the ways of becoming an effective diplomat is to understand the other side well
— Amb. Sung Yong Kim
The American ambassador was overwhelmed by the welcome he received at the school. “It was incredible! When I arrived, there were hundreds of students lined up to welcome me, and I’m just really impressed by their spirit. I think that’s a wonderful reminder of people’s inner strength. They were in such difficult circumstances, yet they were so positive about the future. It’s really inspiring,” he says.
A general observation is that Ambassador Kim’s Asian heritage has been a plus to his successful stint in the Philippines. To which the diplomat, also known for his sense of humour, retorts: “You probably should ask my Filipino friends.” But in earnest, he says, “From my perspective as an Asian-American diplomat, I think it’s always valuable to know the setting, the people, and the cultures well. One of the ways of becoming an effective diplomat is to understand the other side well. To an extent that I am an Asian-American, and the fact that I have spent most to my diplomatic career in Asia, certainly helped so that I could understand the culture and the thinking better. So, yes, I think it helped.”
“But you should really ask my Filipino friends,” he jokingly persists.
What he considers as his ace is the strong ties between the Americans and the Filipinos. “US-Philippine alliances are the oldest in the whole region. That means something,” he begins. “I think that even if a country is pursuing for independent foreign policies, it’s important to remind ourselves that we need friends, and we need to continue to work to maintain strong friendships.”
He also cites statistics: ‘We have over four million Filipino-Americans in the United States and, any given time in the Philippines, we have 300 thousand Americans living, residing, and working here. I think the bond between the two peoples really is powerful. In many ways it transcends politics and economics.”
He has played this card well. “We worked very hard to make sure to capitalise on this strong friendship between the two peoples. I’m reminded of this every single day because almost everyone I meet in the Philippines has some deep connection to the United States, a relative in the US or they themselves studied in the US. Then you go to the military and learn how many of the senior generals trained in the United States. These things really stay with us for a long time.”
He, himself, is serious about keeping the strong friendships he made during his stay here. “I fully intend to stay in touch with my friends here,” he states, “and I hope all of my Filipino friends will come and visit me in Indonesia.”
This is probably one invitation that his friends will take seriously as well.