SEOUL -- After what many people in Korea considered a wobbly start as president of this country, President Yoon Suk-yeol this month stepped up and, in a brief, bold, five-minute speech, made history.
Not only did he reframe the relationship with Japan, but he also articulated a new posture for Korea in the world. “We must stand in solidarity with countries that share universal values,” he said. “In order to contribute to promoting the freedom of global citizens and the common prosperity of all humankind.”
Such lofty, feel-good words are not new to Korean ears. It is not even the first time Yoon has used them. He did so last year to argue why Korea should support Ukraine, for example.
But it is circumstances that give words their significance. Yoon was speaking at the memorial for the March 1 uprising in 1919 against Japanese rule. This is normally the annual moment when Koreans are reminded of their victimhood and when presidents call on Japan to do more to atone for its sins. Instead, Yoon talked about Korea and Japan standing as “partners” with shared values and contributing to a better world.
This may seem quite unremarkable for people who live in other democracies, because, after all, Korea and Japan are neighbors who established ties way back in 1965. But for a South Korean President, it was a radical move.
It inflamed many, especially those who have for so long considered themselves progressive and in favor of change, except on certain matters such as rapprochement with Japan where they are quite conservative. One headline declared, “In raising white flag to Japan, Yoon tramples 30-year fight for Korea’s forced laborers.” Given the depth of this sentiment, it is possible that a future administration may undo Yoon’s foreign policy. The reason anti-Japanese sentiment still runs deep among South Koreans is because Korea’s nationalistic identity was formed in opposition to Japan as it was a century ago. Similarly, the reason Yoon’s move was so risky was because he was reaching deep into that sense of national identity and proposing to change it.
Here is what I mean by that.
For many historians, the 1919 uprising marked the beginning of the modern Korean identity. It began with a declaration of independence against Japanese rule and was followed by nationwide non-violent protests that were brutally suppressed. The royal family and upper classes were nowhere to be seen and were, forever after, relegated to history. Politically, the uprising failed. But spiritually, a new nation was conceived.
Beside anti-Japan sentiment, that nationalistic identity has always another deep vein – victimhood.
The expression of these two features of Korean identity has remained long after they have ceased to be relevant. Not only has Japan changed beyond recognition, but Tokyo paid compensation for the colonial period and formed diplomatic relations with Seoul almost 60 ago. But also Korea is now one of the most economically and militarily powerful nations in the world. Nobody looks on modern Koreans as victims.
The Korean identity is complicated by national division. Because of the political failure of the 1919 uprising, the independence movement split into rival arms. This split eventually led to the creation of separate countries, North and South Korea.
The division itself served to keep Koreans feeling like victims. South Koreans depended heavily on the United States for several decades and had no diplomatic relations with the allies of North Korea until the collapse of Soviet communism in 1989. In the last three decades, the victim posture drove a foreign policy that seemed to suggest Korea was unsure and lacking in confidence. For example, the Korean government was quite happy to see its people demonstrating against the United States and Japan, but was careful to try and be nice to China. Why? Because the US and Japan do not retaliate but China does.
The government was quite happy to see a protest statue outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul – in violation of global diplomatic norms – and even places police there to “protect” it.
When Korea opened markets to foreign products against its will or joined international military actions, such as the Iraq War, instead of finding a way to position these decisions as being in the national interest, governments at the time acted as if they were being bullied – usually by the United States – and unable to react because their country was weak.
Now, finally, the government of Korea is proposing a foreign policy that is in keeping with the national interest as well as with how the world actually views Korea. That is, as a country whose values are those of a modern democracy and which is naturally inclined to join forces with other countries with those same universal values.
This decision, if it is sustained, will see Korea take its rightful place of leadership in the world and will give Koreans a new sense of national identity as being one in which they may take pride.
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