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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on March 3)

Editorials from Korean dailies 06:54 March 03, 2023

An unprecedented speech
Aim for future, but point out what Japan should do

President Yoon Suk Yeol's speech on the 104th anniversary of the March 1 Independent Movement was unprecedented in many ways.

First, the address was short. It was only half or one-third the length of his predecessors' speeches delivered on the same occasion. Yoon revised and reduced the draft to "send a clear, undispersed message befitting the occasion," an aide said.

His message was crystal clear, indeed.

Unlike all previous leaders, Yoon did not mention Japan's misdeeds during its colonial occupation or pending issues between the two countries. He said, "Japan has transformed from a militaristic aggressor of the past into a partner that shares the same universal values with us."

For this futuristic leader, the past does not matter; only the present and future are essential. Yoon said the nation should not forget independence fighters and their sacrifices. But how can Koreans remember patriotic martyrs without recalling their contributions on the very day to commemorate them?

The speech was unbalanced at best and totally out of place at worst.

Yoon also absolved the Japanese colonialists from their occupation of Korea by blaming the Joseon Kingdom more than a century ago. He said Korea lost its national sovereignty because it "failed to properly prepare for a changing world." There were no rebukes of aggressors, just parroting the colonial views of history injected by occupiers.

The president's leap of logic peaked when he emphasized the need to restore ties with the estranged neighbor. "This spirit of solidarity and cooperation is the same spirit that called for our nation's freedom and independence 104 years ago," he said. We can see the need for trilateral ties with the U.S. to respond to security threats. However, we will never understand why collaboration with Japan conforms to the spirit of our ancestors who fought against Japan.

Yoon did his best not to aggravate Japan for two reasons ― the three-way alliance to respond to North Korea's nuclear threats and the recovery of ties with Tokyo by settling the wartime forced labor issue in its final stage.

Still, there are appropriate procedures for everything and ends cannot justify the means. Seeking cooperation with an unrepentant neighbor while ignoring the victims' rightful demands and swallowing our national pride cannot succeed or last long. Nothing shows this better than the fate of the hastily arranged agreement on former sex slaves in the last decade.

To solve the issue of the forceful mobilization of laborers during World War II, the government is trying to have Korean companies pay the victims first and induce Japanese firms' participation later. However, Tokyo is reluctant to do so, demanding a "better solution." The perpetrator and victim have changed their positions.

Chinese forced laborers have received apologies and compensation from Japanese companies. The reason for different treatments was their governments. Beijing also made a governmental accord with Tokyo but maintained individual claims were different matters and pushed it through.

Even if one admits the "subrogated payment" approach is most realistic under the current circumstances, one question remains: why does the government pursue it in such hasty and unilateral ways? It should persuade victims and win the public's sympathy, if not a consensus, not to leave room for future controversy.

Some Japanese leaders may be laughing behind their sleeves. However, they must also know that exploiting Korea's weakness without earning the Korean people's hearts will not lead to genuine cooperation or reconciliation.

The trilateral alliance also needs some thought. Yes, the U.S. will remain the world's most powerful nation despite the challenge from China. 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.

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.

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