What They Said is a weekly series on the quotes behind the headlines.
March 1 is a national holiday in Korea, known locally as Samiljeol (삼일절, literally three-one day). It commemorates the March 1st Movement of 1919, a peaceful protest movement held nationwide in which Koreans criticized the Japanese colonial rule and called for independence. Over a thousand demonstrations took place and were brutally suppressed, resulting in thousands of casualties. The movement sparked independence activism and is therefore commemorated annually to pay respects to those who fought and died during the Japanese occupation, as well as to celebrate Korea’s independence.
On his first Samiljeol as the president of South Korea, Yoon Suk Yeol gave this speech:
“Fellow Koreans, 7.5 million Korean compatriots overseas, decorated patriots who fought for the nation’s independence,
Today we celebrate the 104th March First Independence Movement Day.
First of all, I pay a heartfelt tribute to our fallen patriotic forefathers and patriots who sacrificed and devoted themselves to the cause of Korea’s freedom and independence.
My deepest gratitude also goes to our independence heroes and their bereaved families.
The March First Independence Movement in 1919 was a movement to build a free, democratic nation where the people are the rightful owners as stipulated in the 1919 Proclamation of Korean Independence and the Provisional Charter of the Constitution by the Korean Provisional Government.
It was a historic day. On that day our people showed to the whole world how much they yearned for change. The movement was an embodiment of their vision of the new world they dreamed of.
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.
We must gather our wisdom to seek ways to overcome the crises facing us: global polycrisis; North Korea’s nuclear threats and severe security environment; an increasingly fragmented and polarized society.
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.
Above all, we must remember 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.
There is no future for us if we fail to rightfully remember the patriotic martyrs who devoted themselves to our homeland.
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. Today Korea and Japan cooperate on issues of security and economy. We also work together to cope with global challenges.
In particular, 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.
We must stand in solidarity with countries that share universal values in order to contribute to promoting the freedom of global citizens and the common prosperity of all humankind.
This spirit of solidarity and cooperation is the same spirit that called for our nation’s freedom and independence 104 years ago.
The prosperity that we enjoy today is the result of our ceaseless efforts to defend and expand our freedom as well as our enduring belief in universal values. We must never stop making such effort.
It is the right way to honor the patriotic martyrs who sacrificed and dedicated themselves to the freedom and independence of our country.
Whether glorious or shameful, our history must not be forgotten. It must be remembered to protect our future and to prepare for the decades to come.
Marking the 104th anniversary of the March First Independent Movement, let us remember the patriotic heroes who devoted themselves to our homeland; and let us reflect on the unfortunate times of our history and contemplate what must be done for our future prosperity.
Let us inherit the spirit of the Proclamation of Korean Independence and build a free, peaceful, and prospering future.
— Yoon Suk Yeol, president of South Korea, March 1, 2023 (official English version)
Unlike previous presidents, Yoon did not mention Japan’s brutality and wrongdoing, particularly the rather sensitive issue surrounding compensation for the Korean laborers who were forced to work for Japanese companies during World War II. There were no mentions whatsoever of the unresolved issues between South Korea and Japan, including the Japanese government distorting history in textbooks, the contention over Dokdo Island, and the long-awaited apology and compensation for the “comfort women” who were forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese military. Instead he emphasized the importance of Japan’s position as an ally of South Korea. In particular, Yoon’s stances on Korea needing to “look back on our past, when we had lost our national sovereignty and suffered because we were not properly prepared for the changes in world history” and how “it is self-evident that the misfortunes of the past will repeat themselves if we fail to properly read the changing flow of world history and prepare for the future” have been criticized as victim blaming.
Minbyun-Lawyers for a Democratic Society issued a statement the following day:
“In the commemorative address for the 104th Samiljeol at the Yoo Gwan-soon Memorial Hall in Jung-gu, Seoul on March 1, 2023, President Yoon Suk Yeol said, ‘We must look back on our past, where we had lost our national sovereignty and suffered because we were not properly prepared for the changes in world history,’ ‘It is self-evident that the misfortunes of the past will repeat themselves if we fail to properly read the changing flow of world history and prepare for the future.’” He committed an atrocity in evaluating an invasion caused by the ambition of Japanese militarism and the resultant painful history of our people as a problem of our [people’s making].
President Yoon Suk Yeol’s memorial address on March 1, 2023, is a humiliating remark that will go down in history. Politicians and far-right figures have repeatedly distorted history for political purposes and scarred victims. And this time, the president has revealed his distorted view of history by belittling our history at the commemoration of the March 1st Movement. This is a serious insult to those who shed their blood for our freedom and independence. We cannot help but feel dread and despair.
The Japanese government denies the acts of aggression committed during the Japanese occupation of Korea, shirks its responsibility, and continues to shame the victims. Yet the South Korean government has consistently maintained subservient and submissive diplomacy for reasons unknown, and is intent on protecting Japanese companies by preventing forced labor victims from exercising their legitimate rights. The victims who listened to the Samiljeol memorial address, waiting to see if the government would respond to their wishes for retribution, were at a loss for words.
President Yoon Suk Yeol’s remarks mentioned above remind us of the so-called ‘theory of the stagnation of Korean society’ among the many colonial theories. This theory argues that Japan invaded and came to dominate Joseon from the social evolution perspective, pointing out that Joseon had been stagnant without the development of political, economic, and social structures for thousands of years. This is a claim that overlooks how the order of social status was being dismantled in Joseon at the time, a movement toward an equal society was surfacing, capitalism was sprouting, and modern-oriented studies such as shirhak (practical learning) were born. But most importantly, even if these claims are correct, they cannot justify the savage aggression of Japanese imperialism.
Japan indulged in imperialistic ambitions to advance into the Asian continent, invaded and annexed Joseon by force, and, finding it difficult to control, began a barbaric reign of terror and unauthorized rule over Joseon. And the March 1st Movement was the cry of our nation that arose in resistance to Japan. The outcry began on March 1, 1919, and lasted for several months, taking place all over the country and around the world. The March 1st Movement was a civil disobedience movement in which citizens voluntarily and spontaneously revolted, declaring their country’s independence and exercising the right to resist Japanese aggression. Our nation’s modernized protest against barbarism reached parts of the world and caused national independence movements in other colonial countries.
However, at the ceremony commemorating the March 1st Movement, President Yoon Suk Yeol spoke, in a clear and confident manner, as if the Korean people had made a wrong choice and became a Japanese colony. The government has also proposed a solution that does not ask Japan to apologize to nor pay compensation to the Koreans who were forced into labor for Japanese companies, just as the Japanese government and war criminal companies had hoped, and now he is trying not to get on Japan’s bad side by giving indulgences to its war crimes by revealing a distorted colonial view of history at the March 1st Movement Ceremony. In his commemorative address, President Yoon Suk Yeol referred to Japan as a ‘partner that shares universal values with us and cooperates on security, economy, and global agendas’. It is questionable whether and what kind of values and cooperation Japan shares with us, but at least it seems clear who [Yoon] is a partner to and is cooperating with. In addition, we cannot help but wonder whether this idea is a subservient one coming from blindly jumping on the bandwagon for the United States’ and Japan’s strategy for the ROK-US-Japan alliance. We are deeply concerned about his reading of the flow of world history around of the unfortunate consequences that the US hegemony and Japan’s move to become a militarized power may cause in the future.
As President Yoon Suk Yeol said in his commemorative address, the future is nowhere to be seen with this government, which does not ‘properly remember the patriots who devoted themselves to the country in difficult times.’ We are afraid, wondering whether we can expect this president to fulfill his duty of safeguarding our country’s independence, territorial integrity, continuity of the state, and the Constitution (Article 66, Paragraph 2 of the Constitution of the Republic of Korea).
We strongly condemn President Yoon Suk Yeol’s speech on March 1, 2023. President Yoon Suk Yeol should apologize directly for his absurd remarks. Furthermore, we urge the government to act with responsibility in protecting the rights of victims of the Japanese occupation, including victims of forced labor and the Japanese military ‘comfort women’.”
— Minbyun-Lawyers for a Democratic Society, March 2, 2023
Korean historians also criticized the same controversial lines, remarking that it belittled the Korean Empire as weak and that it was an incorrect interpretation of history, accusing the victim of stupidity rather than criticizing the perpetrator’s wrongdoing.
And his speech possibly prompted another controversial incident in Sejong, where on March 1 a married couple living in an apartment complex in Hansol-dong hung a Japanese flag by their window rather than the Korean Taegeukgi. Shocked at the sight of a Japanese flag, particularly on March 1, other residents requested that they take the flag down. The owners refused. In one interview, the husband replied that he was Japanese and that they had put up the flag because he hated Korea. In a different interview with JTBC, the husband said that he only hung it up in support of Yoon’s speech about how Japan and Korea are in a cooperative relationship. After hurling bouts of insults that seemed to suggest their right-wing political values at those who protested the flag, the couple seems to have decided to sue their neighbors for speaking ill of them, although a suit has yet to be filed. The general consensus on the internet is that the couple are gwanjong (short for gwansimeul batgo sipeohaneun jongja, literally someone who craves attention to such an extent that they will do anything to receive it) and that they don’t seem to be Japanese (the couple posted a Bible verse in Japanese that seemed to have been machine translated).