South Korea's Yoon calls for unification, on holiday marking 1919 uprising against colonial Japan

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s president lambasted North Korea on Friday over what he called its repressive rule and vowed to achieve a free, unified Korean Peninsula, weeks after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un rejected the idea of peaceful unification and threatened to occupy the South in the event of war.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol spoke on March 1 Independence Movement Day, a holiday marking a 1919 Korean uprising against Japanese colonial rule.

“Now, we must move toward a free, unified Korean Peninsula,” Yoon said in a televised speech. “The North Korean regime relies solely on nuclear weapons and missiles while trapping its 26 million citizens in a quagmire of misery and despair.”

“Unification is precisely what is needed to expand the universal values of freedom and human rights,” Yoon said. “Our unification efforts must become a source of hope and a beacon of light for the people of North Korea.”

Yoon and Kim’s conflicting comments on unification come after Korean animosities have run high for more than two years, with North Korea ramping up missile tests and South Korea expanding military drills with the U.S. in a tit-for-tat cycle.

For most of the 70 years since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, unification was a prized goal of leaders in both Koreas, which are divided by the world’s most heavily fortified border. But the prospects for unifying the rich, democratic South and the nominally socialist, authoritarian and poor North any time soon are extremely dim, observers say.

Despite extensive U.S.-led sanctions and its own economic mismanagement, North Korea has appeared politically stable. Exchange programs between the Koreas have been dormant since Kim’s high-stakes nuclear diplomacy with then-President Donald Trump collapsed in 2019.

In a speech in January, Kim vowed to rewrite the constitution to remove the long-running state goal of a peaceful Korean unification and cement South Korea as an “invariable principal enemy.” He said the new constitution must specify North Korea would annex and subjugate the South if another war breaks out. The sudden abandonment of a policy to seek peaceful unification took observers by surprise.

Many experts say Kim likely aimed to take the initiative in dealings with the South while trying to diminish South Korean cultural influence and bolster his family’s rule at home.

During Friday’s speech, Yoon called Kim’s vow of enmity “truly deplorable.” He earlier said Kim’s speech showed the “anti-national and anti-historical” nature of the North Korean government.

Yoon’s speech didn’t touch on the abuses of the Japanese colonial rulers in Korea, which left painful memories and have long been a source of tension between the two countries.

“On a holiday commemorating Korea’s resistance against Japanese colonialism a century ago, Yoon touted his administration’s improved relations with Tokyo,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha University in Seoul. “He emphasized that the independence movement will only be complete once the northern and southern halves of the Korean Peninsula are finally unified and free.”

Since taking office in 2022, Yoon has worked to beef up South Korea’s military alliance with the U.S. and resolve historical disputes with Japan, aiming to forge a stronger Seoul-Washington-Tokyo partnership against North Korea’s nuclear threats.

“Now, Korea and Japan are working together to overcome the painful past,” Yoon said. “Sharing the values of freedom, human rights and the rule of law, our two countries have become partners in the pursuit of common interests for global peace and prosperity.”

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