Exclusive to The Philippine Star
I was fortunate to have met the now outgoing US Ambassador Sung Kim on his first week of posting in the Philippines in 2016. Hilda and I were the first ones to give him a bienvenida dinner upon his arrival and a despedida dinner last November 2019. When the gracious Ambassador approached for a beso on the cheek, Hilda jokingly said that the custom here is to “beso-beso” three times on the cheeks.
Four years later, Ambassador Kim would conclude his duty in the Philippines with several diplomatic accomplishments, including stronger ties between Manila and Washington than when he first arrived. On Sept. 7, he was given the highest award bestowed by the Philippine government to foreigners — The Order of Sikatuna with the rank of Datu (Grand Cross), Gold Distinction — from President Rodrigo Duterte.
To say that Ambassador Kim will be missed in the diplomatic circles of Manila is an understatement. His brand of diplomacy is one that is founded on respect, humility and openness to understand where the other party is coming from.
We had this last conversation after a delicious sendoff lunch, which he hosted for me this time at his official residence before his departure. Ambassador Sung, thank you for inviting Hilda and I, which you originally set for dinner. However, Hilda does not go out of the house because of this pandemic. She is sorry that she could not bid you farewell in person as she really considers you a very special friend and she finds you a very amiable, charming, pleasant person with a great sense of humor. Thank you for moving it to lunch even if it was only the two of us.
I am sharing excerpts from our casual interview here to give you a glimpse of the good ambassador’s fondness for our country and the Filipinos. As I write this, it is only a few days away before he flies to Jakarta, where he is assigned as the next US Ambassador to Indonesia.
Jose Antonio: What are your biggest learnings about the Philippines and its people?
Ambassador sung kim: It’s been an amazing experience to serve as the US ambassador here and I think what made it so special was the Filipino people: their incredible warmth, resilience and strength. And I think Americans and Filipinos have this very strong connection and bond that is very hard to find in other places. And so, being here, being able to work with and get to know Filipinos was the most special aspect of my ambassadorship here. I had, of course, met many Filipino-Americans in the United States and I had positive impressions even before I came here. But I think being here, living here for almost four years, I experienced it more directly and it’s been wonderful.
And you have been part of the Philippine scene, the Manila scene?
It’s been a busy time. I met some wonderful friends and so I am leaving the Philippines with great memories.
What do you consider the biggest accomplishments or successes of your office during your posting here? And what would you still want to accomplish if you had more time?
You know, I don’t think we are ever completely satisfied, so if we had more time, if I had more time, I’m sure I would want to do more in terms of every single important aspect of the relationship. Whether it’s promoting more educational exchanges or whether it’s doing more exercises and training between our two militaries, trying to strengthen our trade and investment partnership with the Philippines.
Despite the pandemic slowing things down.
Yes, it’s been a challenging period for all of us. I think in terms of important accomplishments, I’m glad we were able to return the Bells of Balangiga. It’s an important milestone for the relationship. It’s something that the Philippines had wanted for a long time. I’m really glad and proud to do it during my tenure here.
Thank you for that, and for your initiative. The whole country is very thankful for that. It’s a bell, but it’s also an important symbol.
We also had some very important visits by senior leaders and President Trump had a very productive visit to see the Philippines in 2017. Secretary (Mike) Pompeo had a very important visit to the Philippines. I think what he clarified during his visit to the Philippines regarding the applicability of the Mutual Defense Treaty (assuring Manila that any armed attack on any Philippine forces in the South China Sea would trigger mutual defense obligations under the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty) – it was a very important statement, a very important clarification, not just for the US-Philippines audience, but for the entire region to hear it very clearly from a senior official of the US government.
I also think our mission promoted strong economic partnership, the fact that US firms have made some major investments in the Philippines and there will be more in the years to come. I’ve always said the Philippines has one of the best, capable and young labor forces anywhere. That is a very attractive feature.
What are the memories of the Philippines you will cherish, what will you miss, and maybe not miss?
Well, I think, I will not miss the traffic (laughs), which I think is a sentiment shared by many people.
I’ll miss so many things about the Philippines. I’ve been able to travel quite a bit inside the country and to some beautiful places. Beautiful and also meaningful places like Baguio – I’m quite fond of Baguio – the special history and US-Philippine relations. I had a chance to go up to Baguio recently because we were celebrating the 75th anniversary of the signing of the surrender papers by Japan, so I went up briefly for one last visit.
I’ve also been able to visit some beautiful beach areas like Palawan. I’ll miss all that. I’ll also miss Filipino food. I’ve become quite fond of it. My favorites are lumpia and fried tilapia. I think, most importantly, I’ll miss the Filipino people. I made some really great friends, including the beautiful and lovely Hilda and you, Ambassador Antonio.
We will miss you, but friendships will not be forgotten. They’re expected to continue and, in fact, are enhanced.
Well, I expect my good friends from the Philippines, including you, to come and visit me.
We look forward to visiting you and seeing you again soon. My last question — and I’m sure you have an insight on this — what do you think are the qualities that make an effective diplomat?
I think that it’s important to understand the other party, and to get to know the culture. Because in order to serve effectively in representing your country’s views and policies, I think it’s important to understand the context and the audience. So, keeping an open mind, learning, obviously, is important, and I think being respectful. I think it’s important to be respectful of foreign cultures and characters. – Jose E.B. Antonio, Special Envoy of the President to the United States