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Yoon touts improved Japan ties on Independence Movement Day as gateway to 'new world'

Critics accuse Yoon of dampening independence movement spirit

March 1, 2024 - 15:43 By Son Ji-hyoung
President Yoon Suk Yeol (center, front) waves the national flag during a ceremony in remembrance of the March 1st Independence Movement, at the Yu Gwan-sun Memorial Hall in Seoul, Friday. (Presidential Office)

President Yoon Suk Yeol hailed Seoul's thawing relationship with Tokyo as a chance to move the two East Asian countries toward a "new world," stressing that now is the time for South Korea to leave historical grievances in the past.

Yoon described Japan, which ruled South Korea for 35 years until the end of World War II, as South Korea's "partner in the pursuit of common interests for global peace and prosperity," at the March 1 Independence Movement Day celebration held at Yu Gwan-sun Memorial Hall in Seoul on Friday, a national holiday in South Korea. Yu, a then 16-year-old student, was one of the figures at the forefront of the independence movement in 1919, during which 7,500 people nationwide were killed under Japanese oppression.

There, Yoon did not ask for a response or an apology from Japan for its colonial rule of Korea, or for its attempt to wipe out Korea's culture, language and history. Every South Korean president over the past three decades, except for Yoon, has asked Japan to apologize for its past wrongdoings since the late former President Kim Young-sam.

This drew criticism that Yoon, who has sought to restore ties with Japan during the first two years of his five-year term, undermined the spirit of the independence fighters.

Yoon also said the concept of South Korea's joint prosperity with Japan was enshrined in the 1919 declaration.

The Proclamation of Korean Independence in 1919 in protest against the brutality of the Japanese rulers, "made it clear to Japan that our independence would be a path to prosperity for both countries and that we should open a 'new world' on the foundation of mutual understanding and empathy," Yoon said.

"Now, Korea and Japan are working together to overcome the painful past and are moving toward that 'new world,'" he added.

The conservative president highlighted that Seoul-Tokyo exchanges in both the public and private sectors have significantly improved. Security cooperation between South Korea and Japan against North Korean threats, as well as partnerships in industry, finance and technology have been strengthened, Yoon noted. Nearly 10 million people in South Korea and Japan combined traveled to each other's countries in 2023.

"If Korea and Japan build trust through mutual exchanges and cooperation and work together to resolve difficult challenges that history has left us, we will be able to usher in a new and brighter future for our bilateral relations."

Yoon also hinted that any types of independence movements during the 1910-1945 Japanese colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula should be evaluated on equal terms.

According to the presidential office, armed freedom fighters have stolen the spotlight in terms of the public recognition of the independence movement. An official of the presidential office said on condition of anonymity that independence fighters "in the field of education, culture and diplomacy must also be recognized" in tandem with armed freedom fighters.

"No one is allowed to monopolize history," Yoon said during the address. "All Korean people and our future generations should take pride in the history of (South Korea)."

President Yoon Suk Yeol delivers an address to mark March 1 Independence Movement Day, at Yu Gwan-sun Memorial Hall, in Seoul, Friday. (Yonhap)

Rep. Lee Jae-myung, who leads the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, said on social media that the Yoon Suk Yeol administration "collapsed the independence movement's spirit into oblivion."

Lee also said the growing Seoul-Tokyo partnership that Yoon touted as an achievement stems from "humiliating diplomacy," given Japan's consistent failure to accept its past wrongdoings and its renewed claims over South Korea's territory.

Meanwhile, Yoon said South Korea's unification with North Korea is the only way to inherit the spirit of the independence movement.

"The March 1 Independence Movement will be made complete only upon a unification that brings freedom and abundance to everyone," Yoon said.

Yoon also said North Korea's description of South Korea as its primary foe and invariable principal enemy is "truly deplorable."

A source from the presidential office reaffirmed that there are no ongoing talks concerning Yoon's summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in March. Yoon and Kishida held talks seven times in 2023 as Seoul declared so-called "shuttle diplomacy" with Japan early last year.

South Korea is set to hold a general election in April.