Koihime Musou Girls and Korean Patriots, Part VII: Cao Hong and Juksan Cho Bong-am (1898-1959) - Korean Patriot who became the victim of Syngman Rhee's autocratic rule after the Gwangbokjeol and the catalyst of April Revolution 1960


Cho Bong-am (Hangul/Hanja: 조봉암/曺奉岩 or 曹奉岩, Born: September 25th 1898 in Jisan-ri, Seonwon-myeon, Ganghwa County, Incheon Metropole - Executed: July 31st 1959 at Seodaemun Prison, Hyeonjeo-dong, Seoul Seodaemun-gu), known with his pen name of Juksan (죽산/竹山) was a Korean independence activist and politician, who ran for president in the South Korean presidential election in 1956. He is a member of Changnyeong Cho Clan (창녕조씨/昌寧曺氏), a clan which is originated from Changnyeong County, Southern Gyeongsang Province. He was a founding member of the Korean Communism Party (조선공산당/朝鮮共産黨) and the Progressive Party (진보당 進步黨), a moderate socialist democratic party in South Korea that was one of the country's major political forces.

The March 1st Independence 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 centre of Korean radicals and finally went to study English at Chuo University 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 publicly broke with the communists. Observers 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 organisation. 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. 

The party's founding and moderate success in Korea's hostile political environment is considered a large result of Bong-am's personal charisma. The Progressive Party advocated peaceful unification with North Korea, through strengthening the country's democratic forces and winning in a unified Korean election. Cho called for both anti-communist and anti-authoritarian politics, as well as advocating for social welfare policies for the peasants and urban poor.

In the 1956 election, Cho ran against Rhee, the anti-communist strongman previous president. Cho lost with 30% of the vote, which exceeded expectations. Following the election, the Progressive Party broke apart due to factionalism. Two years after the election, Cho was charged with espionage, and receiving funds from North Korea. He was arrested in January 1958 and was prosecuted for violating the National Security Law. He was initially sentenced a five-year jail term at a district court. However, both the appellate court and the Supreme Court sentenced him to death on February 27th 1959.

He was executed on July 31st 1959 in Seodaemun Prison despite opposition from the United States. Before he escorted to an execution chamber, Cho Bong-am reportedly said, “If I committed something wrong, it was that I entered politics. Please give me something alcoholic to drink.” He buried at Mangu Park Cemetery - 50-13, Mangu Avenue 76th Street/Mangu-ro 76-gil, Mangubon-dong san 57-3 beonji, Seoul Jungnang-gu after his execution on the gallows.

The execution of Sir Juksan Cho Bong-am was the main reason behind the April Revolution of 1960. Shortly after his execution, another Presidential Candidate, Professor Yuseok Chough Pyung-ok was died on February 15th 1960 because of heart attack in the United States when he was undergoing for stomach operation. The death of these two competitors seemed too much of a coincidence to the Korean public and they assumed that the deaths were the result of corruption made by Syngman Rhee.


Cho Bong-am was found not guilty, 52 years later after the execution
51 years later - in November 19th 2010, the Cho Bong-am Case was reopened at the request of his 83-year-old daughter Cho Ho-jeong, and called for a retrial in 2007 to clear his name. The retrial came after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded in September 2007 that the original trial was clouded by mystery and the case should be retried. 

The commission said Cho was viewed as the victim of a “judicial murder.” It said the subversion charge against him was created by the Syngman Rhee administration to “get rid of Rhee’s strongest rival in the presidential election.” At the court hearing on Thursday, Lawyer Choi Byeong-mo who is representing the bereaved family claimed Cho was innocent, saying President Rhee killed Cho by having the subversion charges against him acknowledged by the top court. 

“This is a crime President Rhee committed to get rid of his political rival,” Choi said. “A special military unit questioned Cho and his aides, which was illegal. Moreover, tortuous interrogation techniques were used to have his aides falsely testify that Cho was financed by North Korea to launch pro-communism campaigns aimed at destabilising society.”

In January 20th 2011, the Grand Bench of the Supreme Court pronounced Cho Bong-am, the former chairman of the Jinbo [Progress] Party who was framed as a spy by the Syngman Rhee government and executed, not guilty of the charges of inciting civil uprising and being a spy. 

The court said not only that the Jinbo Party could not be regarded as a group formed with the aim of provoking an uprising, but also that there was no evidence to support charges that Cho was a spy, other than the statements of witnesses illegally arrested and incarcerated by the military. 

The Supreme Court concluded its ruling with an admission of error by the judiciary, saying, "An execution was carried out through an erroneous judgment. The verdict of this retrial, late though it is, rectifies that error." That the unjust charges thrust upon Cho have now been removed is a good thing. What is lamentable, however, is that it has taken 52 years since his execution for the matter to be rectified. 

Cho's execution, deemed South Korea's first case of "judicial murder," is a blot on the history of constitutional government in this country. The Jinbo Party affair was the perfect demonstration not only of the cruelty of dictatorial government, but also of what happens when the judiciary yields before authority. The later committing of other judicial murders, such as the case of Minjok Ilbo president Cho Yong-su, and that of the Inmin Hyeogmyeongdang (People's Revolutionary Party), were the result of the judiciary's lack of belief or conviction regarding Cho's case. 

The execution of the Jinbo Party and Cho also meant the execution of progressive political parties in Korea. The execution of Cho, who had oriented himself toward social democracy after splitting away from communism, led to the disappearance from the stage of a progressive party that had got close to taking power for the first time in the history of Korean constitutional government. 

Cho's killing also narrowed the horizon when it came to discussion of reunification. The doctrine of peaceful reunification through the UN that he advocated, in an era when unrealistic doctrines of reunification through invasion of the North ran rampant, remains novel even today. Regrettably, the Supreme Court did not show the courage at yesterday's ruling to reflect with true regret on its past mistakes. The judiciary must understand that it can only function as the last bastion of protection for human rights if it sincerely apologies and reflects. 

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