Yoon’s National Liberation Day Speech

On August 15, 2022, President Yoon Suk Yeol delivered a major speech to commemorate the 77th National Liberation Day of South Korea (known as kwangbokchol). His speech came amid North Korea’s testing of two cruise missiles, which marks the 18th missile test of the country this year.

Q1: What is South Korea’s “National Liberation Day” speech?

A1: On August 15, 1945, South Korea (Republic of Korea, or ROK) won its independence from Japan after 35 years of Japanese colonial rule. In South Korea, the president delivers a speech every year to remember the day of national liberation and honor those who fought for the country’s independence.

Q2: Was there anything significant about President Yoon’s Liberation Day speech in 2022?

A2: Yoon’s speech was significant largely for two reasons. First, it framed new nationalism for South Korea that was not focused exclusively on the nation’s struggle and fight against Japan. The speech was markedly different from other speeches delivered by previous South Korean leaders, as Yoon redefined South Korea’s liberation history as the country’s historical fight for freedom, democracy, and the rule of law, rather than a remembrance of the occupation period. He declared that South Korea’s historic liberation movement is not a thing of the past but “continues to carry on even to this day.” In his speech, he stated, “In the past, it was the yearning of weaker nations to reclaim their sovereignty and freedom which was forcefully taken from them by those stronger nations wielding force. Now, the mandate of the times calls for countries that share universal values to stand in solidarity to defend freedom and human rights and achieve peace and prosperity for the citizens of the world.” This shows the importance his government places on values-oriented diplomacy and South Korea’s global role in defending freedom and democracy and also manifests its changing security outlook.

Second, the speech took a different frame to Japan than traditional narratives and stressed the future-oriented relationship between South Korea and Japan. While honoring those who sacrificed themselves for South Korea’s independence from colonial Japan, Yoon distanced himself from difficult historical disputes with the country. Instead, he called Japan South Korea’s “partner” that faces “common threats that challenge the freedom of global citizens.” He also stated that historical issues between the two countries could be resolved after they “move towards a common future.” Out of all the diplomatic efforts the Yoon government has made, this is the strongest signal to Tokyo that shows its commitment to improve South Korea’s relationship with Japan.

Q3: Why is it a strong signal?

A3: Yoon’s reconciliatory message toward Japan may not be well received at home and could invite domestic criticism, especially with little Japanese response thus far. But because of that, such costly messaging could add more credibility to Yoon’s overture.

Q4: Why is Yoon so focused on improving relations with Japan?

A4: ROK-Japan relations hit one of the lowest points under the previous governments because of the unresolved historical disputes between two countries. Japan’s removal of South Korea from its white list and South Korea’s decision not to renew the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan further escalated tensions and created a deep fissure in their bilateral ties. Consequently, there have been no bilateral summits and few government-level dialogues in the past five years.

Part of Yoon’s desire to improve South Korea’s relationship with Japan is driven by the rapidly deteriorating security environment. Increased threats from North Korea and growing concerns about China made improving its ties with Japan a rational choice for South Korea in terms of regional security. There are strategic objectives as well. Yoon wants to expand South Korea’s regional and global platform. (For instance, the Yoon government joined the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, or IPEF, and is interested in Quad.) Japan is an important player in support for these regional networks. So, everything is not just about Japan.

Q5: Was there anything new on North Korea?

A5: Yes. The main highlight was Yoon government’s audacious initiative toward North Korea. Yoon pledged massive economic assistance toward North Korea in exchange for its denuclearization. The economic assistance package is wide and encompassing, ranging from large-scale food aid to investment in North Korea to help develop power generators, modernize ports and airports, and health infrastructure, as well as technological assistance for agriculture. To distinguish its plan from the previous proposals, the Yoon government indicated that South Korea could offer food aid in the early stage if North Korea returns to the denuclearization talks even before it takes concrete steps. The United States’ early support for South Korea’s audacious plan added another incentive, raising the hope that some kind of partial sanction relief could be possible for North Korea.

Q6: What has North Korea’s response been?

A6: Not good. In three days after Yoon unveiled his government’s concrete roadmap for denuclearization negotiations, North Korea heavily criticized the audacious plan. Kim Yo-jong, North Korean leader’s sister and top government official in the country, flatly rejected the proposal in a publicized statement that both ridiculed and attacked President Yoon.

Ellen Kim is deputy director and senior fellow with the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Ellen Kim
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Korea Chair