Fellow Koreans and compatriots abroad,
It is truly meaningful and deeply emotional that the March First Independence Movement Day ceremony is being held for the first time at this historic place where the Movement started. One hundred and two years ago today, the Korean people’s resilient recovery and reemergence began here at Tapgol Park. Cheondogyo believers, Christians and Buddhists rose above religious differences to unite with one mind. Students stood at the forefront of a great national union.
At two o’clock in the afternoon on March 1, 1919, a young man walked up into the Palgakjeong Pavilion and read aloud the Declaration of Korean Independence. After the reading was finished, a reverberating chorus of manse filled the air. This was the moment when the world’s largest nonviolent resistance campaign – the March First Independence Movement – began. The cries for freedom and independence that sprang from Tapgol Park enabled common subjects to be reborn as citizens of a democratic republic. The shouts for justice, peace and humanitarianism became chants of unity, bringing the colonized people together.
The March First Independence Movement was a campaign all Koreans joined to regain their lives from the exploitation of colonial rule. The March First Independence Movement made it possible for us to gain momentum to overcome colonization by Japan and initiate a national leap forward. I pay profound respect to our proud forebears who turned the history of the Republic of Korea around while weathering adversities.
Even though a long time – one century – has passed, the devotion and potential of our people who come together in the face of national crises have remained a steady constant. We have never succumbed to the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic that has persisted for more than a year. Over the past year, our people helped safeguard the Republic of Korea as the principal agents of epidemic prevention and control. Frontline workers and medical professionals demonstrated astounding dedication and sacrifice above and beyond their responsibilities.
In 1918, one year before the March First Independence Movement occurred, a new infectious disease called the Spanish Flu descended upon a Korean nation oppressed by Imperial Japan’s military colonial rule and exploitation. Approximately 7.55 million people, over 40 percent of the total population at the time, came down with the disease and, among them, more than 140,000 lost their lives. Cholera also meant death. Its mortality rate reached as high as 65 percent, and some 13,500 lives were lost in 1920 alone.
Imperial Japan could not protect its colonized people from contagious diseases. The Japanese imperialists were bent on taking forced censuses and subjecting people to unconditional quarantine under the pretext of epidemic prevention and hygiene. In 1920, there was incredibly only one doctor per 17,000 people. Even while they faced such harsh conditions, Korean medical students were the most active participants in the March First Independence Movement. Students from Gyeongseong Medical Professional School and Severance Union Medical College led the manse protests at Tapgol Park. The nurses of Severance Hospital and students studying nursing at Severance Union Medical College also took to the streets with rolls of bandages to join the protests. Among the students arrested, Gyeongseong Medical Professional School had the most.
It was our people themselves, awakened by the March First Independence Movement, who protected the lives of their families, neighbors and communities. After the Provisional Republic of Korea Government was founded, medical professionals established the Korean Red Cross Society in Shanghai, China, to come to the relief of the oppressed Korean people in the wake of the independence movement. In 1920, they set up the Korean Red Cross Nursing School and fostered nurses to treat independence fighters.
When cholera was rampant, students and young adults in many parts of the country organized youth anti-epidemic groups to administer free vaccines and conduct disinfecting campaigns, which were greeted favorably. In Seoul, some 3,000 households in 13 neighborhoods formed a united self-defense corps to fight the cholera epidemic. Residents in eight neighborhoods, including Hyoja-dong, organized a cooperative to establish a hospital that specialized in infectious diseases. On September 4, 1920, “Hyoja-dong Isolation Hospital” opened as the first private hospital to quarantine infectious disease patients. In this hospital built by the Korean people, Korean doctors, nurses and practitioners of Oriental medicine put heart and soul into treating patients.
From the context of today’s COVID-19 situation, the efforts of our forebears who, on their own initiative, sought to care for sick Koreans and create our own medical system evoke deep heartfelt emotions, indeed. I am very proud of the fact that the strength that has empowered us to prevail over COVID-19 has its roots in the dedication and sacrifice of our medical professionals a hundred years ago.
My fellow Koreans,
After a hundred years have passed, we can now boast a world-class medical system. Those in low-income levels can receive treatments covered by national health insurance at anytime with annual costs capped at 800,000 won. In addition, patients with serious illnesses saw their coverage rates rise to 80 percent.
Our medical services place among the best in the world in terms of the treatments for colon, stomach and other cancers as well as strokes. Korea ranks among the best in the OECD with regard to such key indicators as life expectancy, infant mortality and survival rates for major cancers. This astonishingly advanced healthcare system and biomedicine production capacity have served as the foundation for Korea’s response to COVID-19.
Even after one hundred years have passed, the spirits of inclusiveness and mutual benefit remain unchanged, allowing us to look after and rely on each other. These same sources of power can carry our people through any crisis. We have triumphed over many crises and hardships through our people’s strength and are now also prevailing over the COVID-19 crisis.
Even though national leaders initiated the March First Independence Movement, it was ordinary people who resisted various forms of suppression and helped escalate the Movement into nationwide manse protests. I believe that the spirit of the March First Independence Movement, which was always invoked when surmounting national crises, still lives vibrantly deep in the hearts of our people who are adhering to social distancing and making it a rule to wear masks every morning for the sake of their neighbors.
Thanks to our people who have persevered and personally sacrificed for their neighbors and to the efforts of medical professionals who are working hard even at this moment in isolation wards, the end of the prolonged battle against COVID-19 is now in sight. Sufficient doses of vaccines and specially designed syringes have been secured, and vaccinations are proceeding as planned without any disruption. While always remaining fully committed to epidemic prevention and control, the Government will do everything possible for the vaccinations until each and every one of our people is safe from COVID-19, thereby achieving herd immunity by November when the next winter will start.
Transparency is the overriding principle that the Government has consistently upheld in the fight against COVID-19. We have always transparently disclosed all the information needed for epidemic prevention and control. The same is true for vaccinations. Inoculation strategies and plans, vaccine procurement and the present state of vaccinations are being disclosed in a transparent manner in accordance with international standards at all times. I urge the people to actively cooperate with the vaccinations and be wary of fake news that stokes distrust.
Fellow Koreans and compatriots abroad,
In 1946, at the first post-liberation March First Independence Movement ceremony, Cho So-ang, a member of the State Council of the Provisional Republic of Korea Government, made a declaration, “We will achieve genuine liberation by ensuring that our compatriots become free, have political rights and do not worry about food, clothing and shelter.” As its founding spirit, the Provisional Government proclaimed the principle of three equalities – equal development between individuals, peoples and nations is possible only when we have independent power. It was an unassuming yet grand vision, upon which we have accomplished outstanding achievements.
Once one of the world’s poorest countries, the Republic of Korea has now joined the ranks of the world’s top ten economies, has become the seventh largest export powerhouse in the world and has ushered in an era of US$30,000 per capita income. We are living in the era when our cutting-edge IT products such as semiconductors, smart phones and displays boast the largest global market shares. Following the world’s first commercialization of 5G technology, we are also taking the lead in the sector of eco-friendly future cars such as electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles. Self sufficiency in the materials, parts and equipment industries is being achieved now, and we can be justifiably proud of the speed of growth in the system-semiconductor and biohealth industries. The percentage of our youth who complete higher education is also the highest among the OECD countries. The potential of our people, who have constantly learned and accumulated knowledge, has served as the driving force behind economic growth.
Drawing on the strength of mature democracy, we have set an example for pandemic responses and economic management amid the COVID-19 crisis. We are now sharing the achievements and experiences of Korea’s responses to COVID-19 with other countries around the world. We are also expanding support for developing countries and ones with lesser-developed healthcare systems. A century ago, the Korean delegation was turned away at the threshold of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Now, we have become a proud country that has even been invited to the G7 Summit. Through participation in this year’s G7 Summit, we will set up a clear milestone to mark the launch of a new vessel “the Republic of Korea – Pacesetter,” building upon all of our political, economic, social and cultural achievements.
Having developed in cooperation with the international community, we will continue to recover and leap forward along with the world. A century ago here, along with the great cause of equality among people, our forebears declared a nonviolent peace movement and proclaimed that the purpose of the Declaration of Independence was not to reprimand and reject Japan but to correct relations between the two nations in order to achieve peace in the East and the world.
We inherited the spirit of seeking out reciprocal equality and peace with other countries from our forebears a hundred years ago. Now, a century later, we are once again acutely realizing how important the spirits of solidarity, cooperation, multilateralism and inclusiveness are in the fight against COVID-19. We have overcome an era in which all human beings fell into misfortunes due to colonialism and wars in a power-dominated unilateral world. We have realized that international solidarity and the spirit of cooperation are indispensable for maintaining global supply chains. We have also become aware that countries around the world should cooperate for the early development of vaccines and that the vaccines should be fairly distributed to developing countries to achieve herd immunity at a global level.
Now the world must revive the spirits of solidarity, cooperation and multilateralism for the sake of coexistence and new prosperity. We have to seek solutions based on multilateralism not only to overcome COVID-19 but also to tackle other global challenges such as climate change. We also have the capabilities now to lead efforts for solidarity and cooperation based on multilateralism. In December last year, we launched the Northeast Asia Cooperation Initiative for Infectious Disease Control and Public Health along with the United States, China, Russia and Mongolia. Japan is also considering membership, and furthermore, I look forward to North Korea’s participation. We will actively cooperate with the countries involved. The transnational spread of livestock epidemics and new infectious diseases such as COVID-19 can only be dealt with effectively through multilateral cooperation that transcends one country’s ability.
We will also continue to make efforts for denuclearization and permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula. We will develop inter-Korean relations based on the three principles of zero tolerance for war, mutual security guarantees and common prosperity. I hope that North Korea will cooperate and interact with the countries in the region, beginning with its participation in the Northeast Asia Cooperation Initiative that aims to protect peoples’ lives and safety. This will become a driving force to create a breakthrough for mutual benefit and peace on the Korean Peninsula and in East Asia.
There was an unfortunate chapter in history between Japan and Korea. Today is the day to remember the most dramatic moment in that history. We cannot forget the history. The perpetrator might be able to forget, but the victim will never be able to. Now however, one hundred years later, Korea and Japan have become very important neighbors to each other in all areas of the economy, culture and people-to-people exchanges. Over the past decades, Korea and Japan have both increased each other’s competitiveness based on a type of division of labor. Korea’s growth has helped Japan’s advancement while Japan’s growth has assisted Korea’s. Things will continue in this way going forward.
The only obstacle we have to overcome is that, sometimes, issues of the past cannot be separated from those of the future but are intermingled with each other. This has impeded forward-looking development. We should learn a lesson by squarely facing the past. It is by no means shameful to learn a lesson from past wrongs, but it is rather a way to gain respect from the international community. Korea is striving to learn a lesson by never forgetting the shameful history of being colonized and the painful history of a fratricidal war. However, we must not let the past hold us back. We have to concentrate more energy on future-oriented development while resolving issues of the past separately.
The Korean Government will always pursue wise solutions based on a victim-centered approach. We will also do everything possible to restore the honor and dignity of victims. However, efforts for Korea-Japan cooperation and forward-looking development will not stop either. Bilateral cooperation will not only benefit our two countries above all else but also facilitate stability and common prosperity in Northeast Asia and the trilateral Korea-United States-Japan partnership. Moreover, now is the time to surmount the COVID-19 crisis together and jointly prepare for the post-COVID-19 era. I would like to stress that there has never been a time when cooperation among neighboring countries has been as vital as it is now.
The March First Declaration of Korean Independence proposed that Japan courageously and wisely rectify past wrongs and cultivate new friendly relations based on genuine understanding. Our spirit is the same now as it was then. The Korean Government is always ready to sit down and have talks with the Japanese Government. I am confident that if we put our heads together in the spirit of trying to understand each other’s perspectives, we will also be able to wisely resolve issues of the past.
Korea and Japan are walking together simultaneously looking at the past and the future. The Tokyo Summer Olympic Games scheduled for this year may serve as an opportunity for dialogue between Korea and Japan, South and North Korea, North Korea and Japan, and North Korea and the United States. Korea will work together with Japan for the success of the Olympics. Furthermore, I hope that both Korea and Japan will be able to revive our economies, which were hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and jointly create a new order in the post-COIVD-19 era through even more robust cooperation.
Fellow Koreans, decorated independence activists and bereaved families,
Only 24 surviving decorated independence activists remain by our side. All of them are well over 90 years old. They have embraced with heart and soul the destiny of the Korean people, and it is the unlimited responsibility of the Government to provide them with the means to live an honorable and comfortable life.
Last year, the Government ran a special task force to offer in-home welfare services to decorated independence activists. COVID-19 emergency relief supplies have been delivered to 44,000 households in total, including independence fighters and bereaved families. Those who cannot move about easily have been provided transport between hospitals and their homes. Epidemic prevention and control supplies such as face masks were also sent to independence activists and their descendants living overseas.
Beginning this month, the Government plans to start a program to have doctors of Oriental medicine make house calls to independence activists of national merit. From December, “self-driving smart wheelchairs” will be provided to people of national merit, including independence activists. The development of “artificial retinas” and “smart hearing aids” will also begin in earnest. The Government has so far improved the way we recognize independence activists as persons of national merit, thereby identifying and rewarding more of them than ever before. We will increase the number of reward recipients by strengthening the efforts to gather historical records about the independence movement and further improving the criteria for reviewing meritorious achievements.
Students played a leading role in the March First Independence Movement, and they carried its spirit into the June 10 Manse Movement in 1926 and the Gwangju Student Independence Movement in 1929. Last year, the Government designated the anniversary of the June 10 Manse Movement as a national commemorative day, and its anniversary ceremony will be hosted by the Government from this year on. It is very significant that all three major independence movements – the March First Independence Movement, June 10 Manse Movement and Gwangju Student Independence Movement – have been bestowed national commemorative days.
The National Memorial of Korean Provisional Government will finally open on November 23 this year to mark the same day in 1945 when key figures of the Provisional Government returned to their homeland. Ranging from the armed battles that risked their lives, patriotic activities and desperate diplomatic struggles to the left-right coalition finally achieved within the Korean Liberation Army and the preparation of campaigns to advance into the homeland, the Memorial will vividly bring back to life the great long march of the Provisional Government which spanned 27 years. I hope that the history of our independence movement will become a source of immense pride and self-esteem for future generations.
Fellow Koreans and compatriots abroad,
The hundred years since the March First Independence Movement are our century of prevailing over colonization, division, war, poverty and dictatorship. It marks one hundred years of progress toward freedom, peace, justice and humanitarianism – the universal values of humanity.
We are now pioneering new paths with the spirit of the March First Independence Movement and the strength of democracy, inclusiveness and innovation. The world is paying attention to our steps. We will restore our precious daily lives through solidarity and cooperation. Korea will become a country that spearheads the international order with the spirit of humanitarianism, multilateralism, mutual benefit and inclusiveness.
The spirit of forebears who turned our history around amid crises and adversities is alive here in Tapgol Park, and we will continue to remember them and move forward.
We are stronger when we are together. We will leap to new heights.