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N and S Korea celebrate National Liberation Day under nuclear stand-off's shadow

South Korean President Moon Jae-in celebrates National Liberation Day in Seoul
South Korean President Moon Jae-in celebrates National Liberation Day in Seoul Reuters/Jeon Heon-Kyun/Pool

Both North and South Korea marked 72 years of independence from imperial Japanese rule at the end of World War II, as tensions over Pyongyang's nuclear stand-off with Washington rose.


The 70th birthday of the modern Indian state was widely reported on Tuesday. But Indians were not the only ones celebrating. Over to the north-east, it was Korean National Liberation Day.

North and South were united insofar as they were remembering historical events on Tuesday, even though those same events were part of the process that divided them.

“In 1945 Korea was liberated from Japanese rule but, at the same time, without any consent of the people living in the peninsula, it was divided into two by the US and USSR,” Noh Jong Sun, a former South Korean presidential advisor and former Harvard professor, explains.

S Korea president backs dialogue

South Korea's President Moon Jae-in's own past is wrapped up in this story of a liberated but divided Korea. Moon was born in a refugee camp to parents who had fled North Korea.

Some experts say his family connection to the North explains why he's much keener on dialogue with Pyongyang than his predecessor President Park Guen Hay.

But Antoine Bondaz, Korea expert at Sciences-Po in Paris, says that sometimes you can overstate the role of history, and more recent factors are at play here.

The important thing is that before entering politics Moon was “a human rights advocate and lawyer for so many years” as well as an “adviser to liberal presidents”, Bondaz continues.

“These are the key factors in his background that might explain his current intra-Korean policy, which is focusing on dialogue as well as sanctions.”

Legacy of Japanese occupation

It’s also worth looking at how that history of Japanese occupation of Korea plays out as Seoul and Tokyo both try to resolve the North Korea crisis.

Bondaz says that for a long while there was hostility towards Japan in South Korea but that this has started to change.

“The Japanese factor has been used in South Korean politics, be it by the conservatives or the progressives, as a way of bringing cohesion at times of domestic troubles," he argues.

"But today this does not have a big impact on relations between South Korea and Japan. President Moon has made several speeches in which he focuses more on co-operation with Japan than on history.”

North Korea celebrated National Liberation Day too, hosting foreign delegates of “friendship” organisations at a five-day long festival in honour of the liberation from Japan.

The heads of 20 different national Korean Friendship Associations arrived in Pyongyang on Friday.

So, at least as far as this anniversary is concerned, it's been celebration all round on the Korean peninsula.

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