One of the most significant festivals in the Republic of Korea is March 1, which honors the widespread protests against Japanese colonial rule. Under President Moon Jae-in the holiday became a memorial to martyrs, a reminder of unresolved grievances, historical disputes, and the need for the Japanese to weep, repent, and pay.
In his speech on the March First Independent Movement celebration on March 1, 2023, Conservative President Yoon Suk-yeol told a different story. Yoon claimed that “the March First Independence Movement in 1919 was a movement to build a free, democratic nation where the people are the rightful owners,” where the people showed to the whole world how much they yearned for change. He also recalled “those patriotic martyrs who gave their all for our country’s freedom and independence during the dark days when no one could ever imagine independence coming in their lifetime.”
However, the current analogies have proceeded in the opposite direction. “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… If we fail to read the changing trends of world history and do not properly prepare for the future, it is evident that the misfortunes of the past will be repeated.”
The Democrats’ rhetoric that “the awful Japanese invaded and took over Korea with the help of a bunch of pro-Japanese collaborators, while the entire country and people bravely resisted,” is at variance with Yoon’s account of the loss of independence. Yoon openly asserts that Korea’s loss of independence was also its own responsibility since it was unprepared for the modern world. Yoon’s interpretation, unfortunately, is much more accurate, according to the author: the ruling regime did little to modernize the country and its capacity to resist aggressors in the years preceding the protectorate and annexation, and when its fate became clear, it did not attempt to organize popular resistance, relying instead on Japan to be driven by the Western powers. The author may discuss this awful incident in a different text.
And then Yoon said bluntly, “Now, a century after the March First Independence Movement, Japan has transformed from a militaristic aggressor of the past into a partner that shares the same universal values with us.” Seoul and Tokyo cooperate on issues of security and economy, and “the trilateral cooperation among the Republic of Korea, the United States and Japan has become more important than ever to overcome the security crises including North Korea’s growing nuclear threats and global polycrisis.”
Furthermore, the current spirit of solidarity and collaboration with nations that share universal values—specifically, “universal” American values—is “the same spirit that called for our nation’s freedom and independence 104 years ago.” And hence, the right way to honor the patriotic martyrs is “our ceaseless efforts to defend and expand our freedom as well as our enduring belief in universal values.”
Yoon Suk-yeol closed his brief address with the line “whether glorious or shameful, our history must not be forgotten,” and offered to contemplate on what must be done for the future prosperity and to get ready for the decades to come.
In fact, the president said that they should stop to speak out against Japan and relations should get back to normal. Unlike his predecessor, Yoon did not mention Japan’s misdeeds during its colonial occupation or the unresolved problems between the two countries. No mention of restitution for past atrocities, or that there is the remilitarization process of the Land of the Rising Sun, or any exhortations for Tokyo to profusely “think on its past” and express regret for it immensely were made. Yoon didn’t say anything that could be understood as calling for Japan to apologize for its previous conduct, according to the Korea Times. This contests sharply with Moon Jae-in’s speech he gave in 2018 calling on Japan to issue an apology as a “perpetrator” of “crimes against humanity.”
The democratic opposition was devastated by such a speech on such a holiday. Opposition leader Lee Jae-myung accused the Yoon Suk Yeol government that it “is oblivious of the March 1 Independence Movement spirit and is damaging the spirit of the March 1 Independence Movement,” claiming that trust-building with Japan is impossible unless the neighboring country takes responsibility and offers legal compensation for its 1910-1945 colonial rule of Korea. “No one would oppose building future-oriented Korea-Japan relations. Without historical responsibility and legitimate legal compensation, however, it is impossible to build trust”. DP floor leader Park Hong-keun stated that “the president’s speech denied the spirit of the national foundation and the noble spirit of resistance stipulated in the Constitution of the Republic of Korea on the day all of its people had resisted against Japan’s colonial rule,” and called on Yoon to apologize to the people for making such a speech, claiming it shows the president believes in Tokyo’s justification that its colonization led to Seoul’s development. Park Jie-won, an adviser to the DP and a former chief of the National Intelligence Service, said that it was like a Japanese prime minister giving a March 1 Independence Movement day speech. While the minor opposition Justice Party leader Lee Jeong-mi also said a country’s ruler’s wrong concept of history can wreck the diplomatic strategy, noting Seoul-Tokyo relations should be based on “Japan’s thorough introspection and self-reflection.” In a general statement on the Independence Movement, the party stated that the Yoon government maintains a submissive stance to Japan under the guise of improving bilateral ties, “which is a disgrace to our ancestors who fought for independence with their bare hands.”
The center-right Korea Times also criticized the president. For this futuristic leader, the past does not matter; only the present and future are essential. But how can Koreans remember patriotic martyrs without recalling their contributions on the very day to commemorate them? Hence, the speech “was unbalanced at best and totally out of place at worst.” The idea of loss of sovereignty was just “parroting the colonial views of history injected by occupiers, and “we will never understand why collaboration with Japan conforms to the spirit of our ancestors who fought against Japan.” The author of the article believes that “seeking cooperation with an unrepentant neighbor while ignoring the victims’ rightful demands and swallowing our national pride cannot succeed or last long” just as it is a sign of weakness. “Korea is no longer the weak, helpless country of a century ago, but a global top 10 economy and top 6 military power. It can – and should – act more squarely, especially in dealing with its former colonizer.”
The fact that Yoon was “kicked” for his excessive reliance on the US is particularly intriguing: “Still, in this increasingly multipolar world, few countries put all their eggs in one basket. Korea failed a century ago by changing sides frequently without maintaining a balance among competing powers and using their rivalry for its interest. The lesson holds today.”
In turn, US State Department Press Secretary Ned Price supported Yoon by saying, “Let me say generally that bilateral cooperation between the United States and our treaty allies is important, but so too is trilateral cooperation. And we do applaud both the Republic of Korea (ROK) President Yoon and Japanese Prime Minister (Fumio) Kishida for their efforts to improve bilateral relations in recent months.” The State Department spokesperson also emphasized that they believed that US-ROK-Japan trilateral cooperation was critical to addressing the challenges that the three countries collectively were confronting in the 21st century.
Some people view the US is behind Yoon’s move as it believes that the Washington-Tokyo-Seoul bloc should be more of a triangle rather than an L-format. While Washington has expressed support for such a course, the author believes Yoon’s desire to normalize relations with Japan stems more from Yoon himself, who is more concerned with constructing a future in which Seoul and Tokyo are allies than he is with historical disputes.
Yoon’s actions are taking place against the backdrop of several significant trends:
- The logic of a divisive world leads to the emerging of a new bloc system. And the idea that supporters of ‘universal values’ should band together isn’t just a figure of speech for Yoon; it’s part of his worldview.
- Several ugly scandals have undermined anti-Japanism in the last two years of Moon Jae-in’s rule. Despite the fact that Yoon Mee-hyang, the main person involved in the case of fighters for the rights of comfort women, received a suspended sentence for embezzlement and even returned to activism, there are many unpleasant moments.
- The rise of anti-Chinese sentiment in the Republic of Korea has substantially supplanted anti-Japanese sentiment, and it is coming not only from the “top” but also from the “bottom.”
- It is unclear to what extent the two countries’ trade war or the cooling of security cooperation has harmed Japan more than the Republic of Korea.
As a result, both before and after the First March Day speech, the Yoon Suk-yeol administration took several significant steps, each of which deserves its own text.
First, Yoon finally visited Japan and held a full-fledged summit with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, rather than a “short-term meeting on the margins of a more important summit.” Seoul had been planning this visit for a long time, and for the time being, let us note this fact while saving the outcome for a later analysis.
Second, the trade war that began in 2019 under Moon Jae-in has actually been terminated. The parties are re-establishing economic cooperation and abandoning mutual claims.
Thirdly, long-running negotiations to compensate those who were forced into mobilization, gained momentum and appeared to have reached a conclusion under Yoon. The issue of “comfort women” has nearly been forgotten in the media due to the conflict over compensation for those who were forcibly mobilized during the colonial era. This is because the elderly former comfort women are slowly passing away, and there are only a dozen of them left with an average age of over 90 years.
Additionally, the forced mobilization of Koreans owned later by Japanese zaibatsu did occur. Democratic activists were able to secure a number of successful lawsuits allowing the seizure of assets of companies believed to be the heirs to Japanese prewar business conglomerations, even though the severity of the discrimination varied from case to case. The Supreme Court of Korea ordered Japanese companies to pay compensation to 15 Korean victims in separate rulings in 2018, but no payment has yet been made, resulting in a five-year freeze in bilateral relations.
Japan upholds its position that the 1965 Korea-Japan Treaty, which normalized relations between the two countries, settled all claims for damages arising from Japan’s colonial rule on the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. The money was paid in full at the time, and the fact that the Korean side invested it in an economic miracle rather than distributing it to relatives as compensation is the Korean side’s problem, not the Japanese.
In this regard, the choice made under Yoon, which is presented as a remedy in this situation, can be perceived as a concession to Tokyo. A foundation that will receive contributions from Korean and Japanese businesses will be used to provide compensation. 56% of people oppose this alternative, which is harshly criticized by the opposition, but it is at least a significant interim step and a project that can be discussed. Especially now that the initial donations have arrived.
In any case, by making such a speech on March 1, Yoon Suk-yeol took a sharp turn towards Japan, and against the backdrop of other domestic political issues, such a dramatic demonstrative turn was a very risky move. And we’ll see how well the president handles the tight turn without dropping anything or losing control.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook.”