Koreans in the Philippines, largely consisting of expatriates from South Korea and people born in the Philippines with Korean ancestry, form the largest Korean diaspora community in Southeast Asia and the ninth-largest in the world, after Koreans in Kazakhstan and before Koreans in Vietnam. As of 2013, statistics of South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade recorded their population at 88,102 people, a fall of 31% since 2009 after a period of rapid growth in the population in the preceding decade.
Many South Koreans living in the Philippines are attracted to the low cost of English-language education and housing, both significantly cheaper than those offered in their native South Korea. The warmer climate is yet another motivating factor for the recent surge in migration. The Philippines is also a popular destination for retired South Koreans on fixed pensions; the Filipino government actively promotes the settlement of South Korean retirees in the country because of the potential lucrative opportunities for the local economy. There are also known cases of North Koreans having been admitted to the Philippines as migrant workers.
The history of Korean settlement in the Philippines can be divided into five phases. The first, lasting until the end of World War II, consisted of just a few disconnected individuals. Jang Bogo of Unified Silla was said to have visited the country as early as the 8th century. However, there was sparse contact or information of contact over the centuries later. There is brief mention of a Korean noblewoman, Doña Maria Park, who lived around 1572-1636 as a Catholic nun serving with other local Japaneseexiled christian (Kirishitan) nuns under the Jesuit-chaplained Beatas de Meaco (Kyoto) or Miyako no Bikuni (Nuns of Kyoto, 1615-1656) in Manila. In 1837, Andrew Kim Taegon and two other Korean Catholics took refuge in the Philippines after fleeing a riot in Macau, where they had been studying. They lived in a monastery near Lolomboy, Bocaue, Bulacan. Around 1935, a few itinerant ginseng peddlers from Uiju, North Pyongan (in present-day North Korea) arrived in the country via Vietnam. Some Korean soldiers came with the Imperial Japanese Army when it occupied the Philippines during World War II; three of these, from Uiju, are known to have married local women and to have chosen remain in the country permanently. One of them, Pak Yun-hwa, went on to establish the Korean Association Philippines Inc. in 1969, which would grow to become the country’s largest Korean organization.
The second phase of Korean settlement in the Philippines consisted of the war brides of Filipino soldiers who fought on the side of the UN Forces in the Korean War. About 30 moved to the Philippines with their husbands in the 1960s; in 1975, they formed the Mothers’ Association.
Beginning with the third phase, migration began to take on a more economic character. With the growth of the South Korean economy, companies in labour-intensive manufacturing industries responded to increasing wages by relocating their operations to other countries, including the Philippines, beginning in the 1980s. As a result, managers of enterprises both big and small, along with their families, began to increase. The fourth phase, in the 1990s. saw an expansion in the variety of Korean businesses in the Philippines; South Korean businesspeople not from just manufacturing companies, but import-export businesses, restaurants, and construction companies, all founded ethnic-specific business associations in this era.
The fifth phase of migration history, beginning in the late 1990s and 2000s, saw the number of students increase. The influx of students coincided with a more relaxed visa policy of the Bureau of Immigration (BI) aimed at attracting foreign students. It was also marked by growing influence and engagement by the various Korean associations with mainstream Philippine society. For example, the Merchant Association, formed in July 2001 and renamed as the Financial Expert Union Association in 2002, helped to regularise the status of South Korean entrepreneurs who had been working without a proper visa, while the South Korean Used Automobile Import Association fought against a newly introduced prohibition on the importation of used cars, and the Travel Company Association worked with the Philippine Department of Tourism to resolve visa and licensing issues for South Korean tour guides who hoped to work in the Philippines.
In the early 2000s, the Philippines also began to become a transit point for North Korean refugees leaving China en route to South Korea, similar to the manner in which the country turned into way-station for Vietnamese “boat people” in earlier decades. The Philippines is one of just three Southeast Asian signatories to the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (the other two being Cambodia and East Timor).Hwang Jang-yop passed through the Philippines after he defected in 1997. In 2001, seven members of a North Korean family transited through Manila. A group of 25 North Korean refugees used the Philippines as a transit point in 2002. According to a U.S. diplomatic cable leaked by WikiLeaks, the number would grow to more than 500 annually by 2005; the Philippine government continued to cooperate quietly with the South Korean government to permit transit of refugees, but reacted coolly to suggestions of admitting North Korean refugees for settlement. Bureau of Immigration records do not show any North Koreans residing legally in the country; however, unnamed BI sources quoted by the media claimed that some North Korean defectors had blended into the much larger South Korean community in the country and settled down there.