Cho Bong-am, second from left, leader of the Progressive Party, appears in court with others on charges of espionage and subversion in 1958. The communist-turned-politician was executed the following year.
/ Korea Times file
By Andrei Lankov
In January 1958, the Korean media reported on a large communist conspiracy in the country, with a leading politician and recent presidential candidate as its mastermind. Few people believed this report at that time ― and, perhaps, they were correct in their skepticism. Cho Bong-am, the alleged ringleader was a very unlikely candidate as a master spy ― but he was the most dangerous political rival of the increasingly dictatorial President Syngman Rhee.
Once upon the time, Cho Bong-am indeed was a communist ― one of the most prominent Korean communist leaders, actually. His pre-1945 biography was very typical for a first generation communist, it was as typical as it could get.
Born in 1898 in the countryside, not far away from Seoul, Cho Bong-am belonged to the first generation of Koreans who received a modern education. He graduated from a specialized agricultural middle school, briefly worked as a clerk in a county office and then in 1918 moved to Seoul.
The Seoul of the late 1910s was a hotbed of youthful radicalism ― and it is not incidental that during his first year in Seoul, Cho Bong-am managed to meet nearly all of the future leaders of the Korean communist underground. Thousands of young people like Cho Bong-am, recent graduates of the new, Western-type schools, lived in the fast growing city and were engaged in endless discussions about the future of their country.
Remarkably, none of these youngsters was a traditionalist (or a “fundamentalist” as we would say now), virtually none of them dreamt about the return to some idealized Confucian past. What they all craved for was modernity, and the future Korea of their dreams was a country of huge steel mills, mighty airships, railroads and radio transmission towers, not a bucolic land of wise Confucian sages and happily obedient peasants. It was especially true in the case of Cho Bong-am: unlike many other communist leaders, scions of the affluent gentry, he was poor, and during his work at the county office he could see many cases of abuse of farmers by landlords. So, Cho Bong-am and his young friends were decisively unsentimental about the past.
But soon it became clear that they were divided about the future _ or, rather, about the best way to achieve their shared goal of a modern, industrialized, independent Korea. Some were attracted by the ideas of democracy and were ready to accept (grudgingly) the market economy, but many more gravitated towards the newly popular teachings of communism. Many young Koreans believed that communism was a way to build a powerful nation in the shortest possible time, while also avoiding the painful contradictions of modernization and ameliorating the sufferings of the poor.
The March 1 movement of 1919, a nationwide anti-Japanese uprising, was the first political experience for nearly all first generation communists. Cho Bong-am took part in the street rallies, then spent a year in prison, moved to Shanghai, the major overseas center of Korean radicals and finally went to study English in Japan where he formally joined a communist students group.
What followed, was a textbook case of a Korean communist’s biography. Cho Bong-am went to Moscow to study in the Communist University for Toilers of the East, where would-be Asian revolutionary activists were tutored in the revolutionary theory and the practice of underground operations. In 1925, when the Communist party of Korea was formally established, he became one of its top leaders. In 1932 he was arrested by the Japanese agents in Shanghai, and extradited to Korea where he spent seven years in prison (and was arrested again in early 1945, to be liberated by the collapse of the colonial regime).
Predictably, Cho Bong-am was among the communist leaders who in August 1945 re-established the Communist party in Seoul. But then things changed: in early 1946 Cho Bong-am publically broke with the communists. 0bservers were surprised by this decision of Cho Bong-am, a life-long communist unstained by collaboration and unbroken by persecution. After all, such people were far less common in 1945 Korea than most left-leaning Korean historians want us to believe nowadays ― the majority of the erstwhile communist activists collaborated with the colonial authorities in the early 1940s.
This surprising turnaround needs some explanation. Usually it is explained by the personal animosity between Cho Bong-am and Pak Hon-yong, another prominent activist who emerged as the ambitious boss of the revived South Korean communist movement. Indeed, their relations went sour in the early 1930s. Nonetheless, such decision was likely to have other reasons as well ― above all, by Cho Bong-am’s irritation about the communists’ willingness to blindly follow orders from Pyongyang and Moscow as well as their unabashed disregard for democracy. In 1946, just after his break with the party, Cho Bong-am famously said: “We need neither a bourgeois dictatorship nor a proletarian dictatorship.”
Nonetheless, the concerns which once made young Cho Bong-am a communist did not disappear from his mind and consciousness. He might have been bitterly disappointed by the communists’ politics, their dictatorial inclinations and manipulative methods, but he was still looking for solutions of the same social problems which made communism so attractive.
Essentially, Cho Bong-am can be seen as an early representative of the non-Communist left. In this regard he was somewhat akin to Orwell, a staunch and perceptive critic of orthodox communism who still remained hostile towards the capitalist society. This was a rare choice in the late 1940s when the Cold War solidified ideological divides. It was a particularly difficult choice in South Korea where Syngman Rhee’s increasing authoritarian regime made a hard-line anti-communism into a sort of state religion.
In 1948 Cho Bong-am became the Minister for Agriculture in the first ROK government. In this capacity he was responsible for South Korea’s land reform, remarkably radical and egalitarian. The land was taken away from landlords (they were paid compensation, though) and redistributed among the farmers. The right-wing opposition, which included a large number of rich landlords and their scions, said that the reform, clearly favoring the farmers, was “communist in nature.” They were probably right: this was where Cho Bong-am looked for examples.
The success of the land reform is often mentioned among the factors which laid the groundwork for the “economic miracle” of the 1960s and 1970s, a nearly unprecedented transformation of once rural and impoverished Korea into a modern and developed nation.
Once again, Cho Bong-am demonstrated his bravery and self-control during the first days of the Korean War. When Syngman Rhee panicked and ran away from doomed Seoul, Cho Bong-am did what he could to make the city evacuation orderly, to destroy confidential documents and keep a semblance of order in the city. His wife Kim Cho-i, also a lifelong independence activist, could not leave Seoul and disappeared, never to be seen or heard again (probably she was executed by the Northerners). However, these remarkable achievements of Cho Bong-am were greeted by Syngman Rhee with a great deal of hostility: he never forgot Cho Bong-am’s communist past, and he also began to smell a potentially dangerous rival.
After the Korean War, Cho Bong-am remained one of the country’s top politicians, and twice ran for presidency. His first bid took place in 1952 when he won 11 percent of the vote. In 1956 he was far more successful as the sole opposition candidate. By that time Cho Bong-am established a left-leaning Progressive party whose program was close to those of the European social democrats. In spite of Syngman Rhee’s control over media and bureaucracy, in May 1956 presidential elections Cho Bong-am won about one third of the vote (30.01 percent, to be exact).
This made Syngman Rhee quite uncomfortable. The South Korean extreme right was also looking at Cho Bong-am’s Progressive party with great suspicion, often perceiving it as a communist front organization. Indeed, it seems that North Korean government tried to approach Cho Bong-am and other Progressive party leaders ― logically enough, in Pyongyang they were seen as useful political allies.
So, in January 1958 Cho Bong-am was arrested on charges of espionage and subversion. After the first trial he was acquitted, but Syngman Rhee did not want his most dangerous rival to remain politically active. So, under heavy government pressure the second trial followed, and Cho Bong-am was found guilty of high treason and conspiring with the North. He received the death sentence and was executed in July 1959. On his way to the gallows, he said: “If I committed something wrong, it was that I entered politics.”
Few people ever seriously thought that Cho Bong-am was a North Korean agent, not a victim of Syngman Rhee’s greed for power. Nonetheless, it took decades to admit this officially: only a few months ago, the Supreme Court formally reopened his case. In all probability, he will be acquitted posthumously, but whatever the results, Cho Bong-am will remain in Korean history as a rare example of a politician who lived up to his principles ― and paid with his life.
Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.