SEOUL – In a speech Friday marking the 100th anniversary of the launch of a popular uprising against Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule, South Korean President Moon Jae-in pledged to strengthen cooperation with Japan to ensure peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Moon’s remarks, at the annual commemoration of the March First Independence Movement, follow a fraying of South Korea-Japan ties over historical grievances, including the issue of “comfort women.”
The term comfort women is a euphemism used to refer to women who provided sex, including those who did so against their will, for Japanese troops before and during World War II.
“Cooperation with Japan will also be strengthened for the sake of peace on the Korean Peninsula,” Moon said in his speech at a government ceremony in central Seoul.
“We cannot change the past but can transform the future. When Korea and Japan firmly join hands while reflecting on history, the era of peace will approach our side with large strides. When the pain of victims is substantively healed through concerted efforts, Korea and Japan will become genuine friends with heart-to-heart understanding,” he added.
The absence of direct criticism of Japan in Moon’s speech suggested he was reluctant to further aggravate tensions in the bilateral relationship.
With regard to pro-Japanese collaborators during the colonial era, the president said erasing their vestiges was a “long-overdue undertaking.” But he also said Koreans neither intend to “instigate divisiveness by re-opening old wounds now nor create issues for diplomatic conflicts with a neighboring country.”
Also during the speech, Moon indicated his readiness to continue serving as a mediator between the United States and North Korea, one day after talks between the leaders of the two countries, held in Hanoi, essentially collapsed without any agreements.
The two-day summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam through Thursday made “meaningful progress,” Moon said, claiming that the two leaders had conversed at length and built more trust.
“Importantly, they even discussed the issue of installing liaison offices, an important step toward the normalization of bilateral ties,” the president said.
In the event progress is made in North Korea’s denuclearization, he said, the two Koreas will set up a joint economic committee to “produce economic achievements that benefit both South and North Korea.”
Moon also expressed hope that progress in inter-Korean ties will lead to normalizing the North’s relations with the United States and Japan, which he said would then lead to a new order of peace and security in Northeast Asia.
On March 1, 1919, prominent Koreans opposing Japan’s colonial rule issued a declaration of independence, sparking mass demonstrations across the peninsula.
South Korea has designated the anniversary a national holiday.
Patriotic sentiment has recently been rising among the South Korean public, due partly to 2019 being a centenary year for several historical events.
Among such events, on April 11, the country will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in Shanghai.
In line with the centennial events, Moon’s government has decided to pardon about 4,300 people.
Various events have also been planned to remember high-profile Koreans, such as Kim Koo, an independence movement leader, and Ahn Jung-geun, a national hero in South Korea who assassinated Hirobumi Ito, Japan’s first prime minister and first resident-general of Korea, in 1909.