60 Years of the Republic: The Party of Progress Incident

      July 03, 2008 09:45

      Cho Bong-am, former chairman of the Party of Progress, sits in the bar at the Seoul High Court in October 1958.

      "It seems that Unam (Syngman Rhee's pen name) is going to kill Juksan (Cho Bong-am's pen name) by all means."

      "I've heard that, too. By the way, what are Unseok (Chang Myun's pen name) and Yuseok (Cho Byung-ok's pen name) doing? Why don't they try to dissuade Unam from killing Juksan?"

      Thus goes a conversation between two passengers on a train in the beginning of the 12-volume saga "Frontier Between Two Empires" by Yi Mun-yol. The novel paints a picture of ordinary Koreans in the late 1950s through the prism of a young child who overhears conversations between adults in the train.

      And indeed, it was clear to most ordinary people that the Party of Progress incident had nothing to do with espionage, as the government alleged, but was related to the president's scheme to get rid of his political rival.

      Cho Bong-am was the leader of a progressive political party, proof that the founding fathers of the Republic of Korea were not all of the Right. A former Chosun Ilbo reporter, he had been a key figure in the Korean communist movement who participated in the founding of the Korean Communist Party in 1925.

      But he took part in the founding of the republic in 1946 after parting ways with the communists and declaring a centrism opposing both the "working-class dictatorship and the capitalist-class authoritarianism." He served as a member of the National Constituent Assembly and the first minister of agriculture. He later ran for the second and third presidential elections.

      Cho won about 2.16 million votes in the third presidential election, posing a significant threat to president Syngman Rhee's Liberal Party. He founded the Party of Progress, a party that advocated democratic socialism, in November 1956, laying the foundation for progressive political parties to emerge in Korea.

      On Jan. 13, 1958, police abruptly arrested senior members of the Party of Progress. Cho was indicted on charges of spying and violating the National Security Law. He was charged with calling for "peaceful reunification," which was allegedly too close to North Korea's reunification policy, and receiving funds from North Korea.

      The district court sentenced him to a five-year jail term after the major charges against him were dropped. But on appeal three months later, all his charges were upheld and the Supreme Court sentenced him to death on Feb. 27, 1959. Despite opposition to his execution from the U.S., he was hastily executed on July 31, 1959, the day after his application for a new trial was rejected.

      The Chosun Ilbo implied in several editorials that he was not guilty, raising misgivings about the court proceedings. In its Aug. 1, 1959 issue, the daily quoted Cho as saying right before his execution, "The only crime I've committed was my engagement in political activities... Give me a last cup of booze."

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