[Robert Park] High-profile political assassinations: a prelude to Korean War

By Robert Park
  • Published : Mar 3, 2019 - 10:57
  • Updated : Mar 3, 2019 - 14:25

Politically motivated killings became commonplace on the heels of Korea’s 1945 division: The merciless assassinations of Godang Cho Man-sik (1883–1950), Mongyang Yo Un-hyong (1886–1947) and Baekbeom Kim Koo (1876–1949) were the three most fateful.

Circa 1945, Cho was “perhaps the most admired political figure in all of Korea” and the “Soviets’ first choice” as proxy leader of the North, owing to his immense popularity and proven ability to guide as well as effectually advocate for the people he so cherished. The Soviets intended to “leverage Cho’s popularity and prestige to put together a broad coalition of leftists and nationalists as a base of support for their policies and plans to create a pro-Soviet regime,” wrote Sheila Miyoshi Jager in “Brothers At War: The Unending Conflict in Korea” (2013).

Cho was a scrupulous pacifist and moderate, with a singular record of courageous and undeviating resistance to fascist-era Japan’s overbearing police-state. Unlike the murderous Machiavellian braggarts who hijacked Korea’s political development subsequent to the 1945 partition of the country -- deftly exploiting the nascent division of Korea for base ends -- Cho strove to maintain common ground with those deemed on the left, such as his good friend Yo Un-hyong, and those regarded on the right, such as Kim Koo.

Cho’s uncompromising integrity culminated in his undoing. Proffered to “be made the first president of Korea” in exchange for an open endorsement of an ill-advised multipower “trusteeship” scheme in early 1946, Cho declined the proposition out of principle. He was imprisoned for this and later executed on Oct. 18, 1950 in Pyongyang. His body, which has never been recovered, was reportedly abandoned in a ditch by the Taedong River.

At World War II’s denouement, the Japanese colonial apparatus -- having the most reliable data with respect to the distribution of power among Korea’s political leaders -- transferred administrative authority to Cho Man-sik in the North and Yo Un-hyong, Cho’s longtime friend and another highly-respected independence advocate, within the South.

Prior to external on-the-ground interventions, both Cho and Yo had the situation under control, and things were going rather well. Tens of thousands of political prisoners were freed throughout Korea; quislings who had done Japan’s dirty work -- such as hunting independence leaders and trafficking Korean women -- were being stripped of illegitimate authority and replaced by those who would do a vastly more respectable job. Both men’s cultivation and capacity to lead Koreans toward a self-respecting and peaceable state of affairs were evinced in their prohibiting extralegal reprisals against the Japanese.

Most lamentably, the progress was short-lived and soon to be turned on its head. Soviet and US military authorities would end up doing their best to undermine and neutralize both leaders’ redoubtable sway within the two manufactured zones -- reversing the inroads apropos of self-determination and societal health Cho and Yo had admirably been facilitating.

Bertram Sarafan, a US military government officer active in Seoul at the time, summed-up the Korean people’s predicament and impending cataclysm in a Nov. 20, 1946 article: “In the continuation of the closed border at the 38th parallel, they saw the strangulation of their country by its ‘liberators.’ ... It was a very general sentiment that the seeds of civil war between left and right elements throughout Korea had been sown. Many Koreans seriously expected war in Korea between Russia and the United States.”

Upon the interposition of Soviet and US forces, an indigenous-led movement for transitional justice was efficiently foiled; social and political chaos ensued, degenerating delicate circumstances in Korea toward an obscene and avaricious contest for power. In this calamity, Cho, Yo, Kim Ku and ultimately millions of Koreans were lost forever. Compounding Korea’s tragedy is the verity that Cho, Yo, Kim and other Korean voices -- had they been permitted a modicum of unobstructed latitude -- with their far-reaching and hard-earned clout, could very well have averted the Korean War and nonviolently reunified the Korean Peninsula.

Yo sought tirelessly to bridge the chasm between left and right and to secure a brighter tomorrow for the Korean people. For said efforts, he -- after external intervention -- was heedlessly smeared and violently persecuted by both the South’s extreme left and ultraright.

Preceding the two bullets that tore into Yo’s back and heart in Seoul on July 19, 1947 -- at the hand of a 19-year-old assassin -- his home had been bombed, he was kidnapped and assaulted, and he together with his family were subject to death threats. Yo reportedly suffered “13 terror assaults from the left and right” ahead of the murder.

Then there’s Kim Koo’s unresolved case. Well-liked in South Korea -- commended by many across Korea’s political spectrum -- his visage is a fixture at the South’s festivities every March 1. Last year, during a government ceremony commemorating the 99th anniversary of Korea’s 1919 March First Independence Movement at Seoul’s Seodaemun Prison, an enormous banner featuring Kim, lifted high by participants, was strikingly on display.

Nevertheless, depending on whom you ask or whose theories you’re inclined to believe, Kim has been labeled “communist,” “fascist,” “leftist,” “rightist,” “moderate,” and/or “Soviet agent;” i.e., his life story is often skewed to align with irreconcilable agendas -- the same holds true for Cho and Yo. The last designation was asserted by none other than Ahn Doo-hee, the mercenary “lieutenant” who pulled the trigger on Kim four times while the septuagenarian was reviewing poetry at his residence. The murder occurred on June 26, 1949 -- in three days, US troops withdrew from the Korean Peninsula, and in less than a year what is today referenced as “the forgotten war” materialized.

Whatever epithet commentators attach to Kim, it is obvious he is esteemed in South Korea to this day. The shocking death of the longest-running and final president of the Korean provisional government, inaugurated in 1919, plunged an already-tottering Korea into sheer and irrevocable chaos -- an essential factor in setting the stage for the 1950-53 war. The Korean provisional government is enshrined in South Korea’s Constitution as the bona fide starting-point of the contemporary Korean state.

Roughly a decade earlier, there was a national movement seeking to feature Kim’s portrait on new Korean 100,000-won bills, but this move was stalled for unclear reasons. The South Korean government should do everything in its power to recommence the project and to improve educational outreach, not only domestically but internationally, in an effort to bring about better understanding of independence leaders such as Cho, Yo and Kim; achieving their vision of an independent, just, free, and unified country warrants no less.

Robert Park
Robert Park is a nonpartisan humanitarian and human rights advocate. -- Ed.