In his address to celebrate the 104th anniversary of Korea’s March 1 Independence Movement, South Korean President Yoon Seok-yeol called Japan a partner sharing values with South Korea.
“Now, a century after the March 1 Independence Movement, Japan has transformed a militaristic aggressor of the past into a partner that shares the same universal values with us,” Yoon said during his address on Wednesday. He also said South Korea and Japan are working together to “cope with global challenges” while adding the cooperation between the two countries on the issues of security and economy.
Since he took office in May 2022, Yoon has consistently raised the necessity of renewing the deteriorated relations with Japan. To demonstrate his passion to work with Tokyo, he held an informal meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio during his visit to the U.N. General Assembly in New York last year, but there has been little progress to resolve the tensions and antagonism between the two countries.
Tokyo has demanded Seoul resolve the Supreme Court ruling that ordered Japanese companies to pay compensation to South Korean victims of wartime forced labor. However, the South Korean government has no authority to nullify the Supreme Court’s ruling. Instead, the Yoon administration has voluntarily taken steps forward to soothe Tokyo’s dissatisfaction, as it believes cooperation with Tokyo should be strengthened in order to cope with North Korean nuclear and missile threats effectively.
“In particular, the trilateral cooperation among the Republic of Korea, the United States and Japan have become more important than ever to overcome the security crises including North Korea’s growing nuclear threats and global polycrisis,” Yoon said.
It is not unusual to witness the South Korean president suggesting a way to cope with the North’s nuclear threats and other security issues. However, critics said that Yoon’s address on March 1 – one of the main national holidays marking Korea’s independence from Japanese colonial rule between 1910 and 1945 – seemed to absolve Japan of responsibility for invading and colonizing Korea.
“Today, 104 years later, we must look back to that time when we lost our national sovereignty; the time when our people suffered because we failed to properly prepare for a changing world,” Yoon said. That comment serves to place the blame on Korean leaders for Japan’s invasion of the Korean Peninsula. A similar claim was also made by some members of the ruling People Power Party.
The spokesperson of the main opposition Democratic Party criticized Yoon’s labeling of Japan as a cooperative partner, saying that a partnership sharing universal values can be made when the other party makes a sincere apology and adopts a responsible attitude.
The spokesperson added that Yoon’s speech legitimized the theory of colonial modernization, which holds that the oppressive Japanese rule was ultimately beneficial to Korea.
Yoon’s predecessor as president, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party, spent more time in his address on March 1, 2022, elucidating how the independence movement against imperial Japan had begun and why Japan should be more responsible to the South as “a trustworthy country.” Park Geun-hye, the impeached conservative president and Moon’s predecessor, also clearly stated in her first March 1 address in 2013 that the historical position of the perpetrator and victim cannot be changed.
In this context, Yoon’s address brought criticism from the public, which largely felt that his desire to rebuild ties with Japan should have been hidden on the day when the country remembers sacrifices made to win independence from imperial Japan.