By Andrei Lankov
Korea Times Columnist
On April 17, 1925, a Chinese restaurant in downtown Seoul hosted what looked like a banquet attended by some young intellectuals ― had somebody asked, he or she would have been told that it was a gathering of young journalists.
However, this was merely a cover. People who ostensibly came to Aseowon restaurant for a lunch, actually gathered to establish the Communist Party of Korea, and the clandestine event was officially considered to be its first (founding) congress.
The second congress never took place, since the ``1925 Party'' did not survive for long, being disbanded in 1928.
But this event heralded the birth of a new political force which was to play a major role in Korean politics for the next century.
Yi Dong-hwi, an independence fighter who led a guerrilla campaign against the Japanese occupying forces, contributed to the development of Korean communism in the 1910s and 1920s.
/ Korea Times File
In the early 1920s, the recent graduates of the modern schools, founded in around 1900 and soon afterwards, were fast becoming a major intellectual force in the nation. They did not like what they saw around them: Korea was an impoverished colony of a second-rate imperialist country. These people believed that the fate of the native land should be changed ― but how? And what should the future of Korea look like?
It is remarkable that in the Korea of the early 1900s, one cannot find much influence of Confucian traditionalists.
A Korean version of fundamentalism did exist, but by the 1920s, it had lost all its appeal.
None of the young intellectuals believed that the country's problems should be solved by the revival of the traditional society or through a zealous study of Confucius and Mencius.
Young Koreans did not long for an idealized past, their ideal was the future which back then was represented by the industrial West.
They believed in progress and changes, it was beyond doubt that the future Korea should be a society based on science, technology and rationalism.
However, there was a major problem: how could such a future be realized?
In those days, the most likely alternative was proposed by the liberals who emphasized democracy, rationalism and a market economy (well, with some state involvement, perhaps).
However, if judged by the young idealists, this approach had two major shortcomings.
First, in those days, liberal ideology was often associated with imperialism ― and indeed, sometimes the Western intellectuals of liberal inclination went as far as justifying imperialism (``those races which are not fit, should vanish.'') Second, the path of progress seemed very slow moving. This is where communism came in.
The ideas of Marx by Leninist and, later, Stalinist interpretations inspired many young intellectuals of the 1920s and 1930s.
Leninism promised a supposedly scientific path to a utopian future, it was anti-imperialist and anti-racist.
It also had a significant romantic appeal usually associated with radicalism while the liberal democracy with its ``counter-weight'' and ``divisions of power'' appeared to be too dull and calculating.
And, last but not least, communism not merely held the promise of a national revival: it presented itself as a way to build a much better society, based on the noble principles of equality and social justice.
This popularity of communism was a worldwide phenomenon, by no means limited to Korea ― even though it was especially alluring in East Asia.
The ability of the USSR to avoid the Great Depression that began in 1929 made it even more appealing among Western ``progressive intellectuals'' ― who chose to ignore the news about the disastrous famine that struck Russia in the early 1930s and killed several million farmers.
They also remained blind to the reports about mass executions and huge prison camps (some 750,000 people were executed as political prisoners in the late 1930s in Russia). Nonetheless, prominent intellectuals, like Nobel Prize winners Bernard Shaw and Romain Rolland, serenaded Stalin and his successes and denied all reports about Gulag camps and mass starvation as ``malicious slander'' and ``reactionary propaganda.''
Korea could not remain untouched by these trends in international ideological fashions.
Militant Marxism spread in Korea through two major channels.
First of all, it came directly from Russia which in the 1920s had the world's second largest Korean community.
Many ethnic Koreans were exposed to communism during the civil war of 1917-1920, and were impressed by its promise of national and racial equality (it did not hurt that the communists also promised to redistribute land).
Sufficient to say that some 8,000 ethnic Koreans joined the Red forces during the civil war.
This might not appear to be a large number, but the ethnic Korean community was roughly 100,000 strong in 1917, so it means that roughly one out of four able-bodied males volunteered for the communist army.
It also helped that in the Russian Far East the major adversary of the communist forces were the Japanese.
Thus, a number of Korean exiles who fled to Russia after the collapse of the Korean resistance in 1905-1911, were eager to forge an alliance with the Reds, and often to embrace their ideology as well.
One such figure was Yi Dong-hwi, a former officer in the Korean army who first led a guerrilla campaign against the Japanese occupying forces, and then escaped to Russia.
In 1918, Yi established the first Korean communist group, called the Korean Socialist Party.
This initiative attracted much attention from the communist leaders far away as Siberia, so Yi was even invited by Lenin for a personal talk.
Soon, Yi travelled to Shanghai where he took part in the establishment of Korea's government-in-exile in 1919.
From his base in China, Yi began to dispatch people to Korea in order to disseminate communist ideas there.
These efforts were supported by Moscow ― partially due to sincere missionary zeal, and partially because of Russia's geopolitical considerations (in the course of time, the latter began to dominate the former).
Moscow was generous in providing funds, training and other support for the nascent communist movement.
These efforts found a fertile ground in Korea where many intellectuals were quite willing to embrace the new progressive ideology.
The Korean students in Japan also played a major role in the spread of new ideas.
While in Korea proper, the colonial authorities enforced a system of strict surveillance. Japan of the 1920s was much more liberal, with Marxism being very much in vogue in Tokyo academia.
The colonial authorities encouraged Koreans to go and study in Japan, with the assumption that they would come back enthusiastic supporters of all things Japanese. Many of them actually returned hardcore Marxist revolutionaries.
And finally there was China. This country which had no functional central government became a haven for Korean political exiles of all persuasions.
It was frequented by those from Russia and Japan, as well as from Korea proper.
Professional revolutionaries and Soviet secret agents operated there on a grand scale.
The international settlements and concessions provided a modicum of safety for political activities ― the Korean government in exile was established in 1919 in the foreign-controlled area of Shanghai.
By 1925, a number of Korean Marxist study groups operated in Korea and overseas, making the establishment of a formal Communist Party the next logical step.
However, there was a major obstacle: half a dozen clandestine Korean groups could not work out who of them should become the ``core'' of the future Party and whose leaders would be in charge.
Ugly factional confrontations ensued, to the great dismay and annoyance of the Comintern leaders in Moscow.
Only in April 1925 was the situation calm enough for representatives of the communist groups to formally establish the Communist Party of Korea. It did not last long, soon being suppressed by the colonial authorities.
However, in spite of feuds and rivalries, and contrary to the expectations of the colonial authorities, communism was very much in vogue in Korea of the 1920s. A majority of the young intellectuals, aspiring writers and bohemians at least, expressed their interest in this new and wonderful theory.
Popular treatises on Marxist understanding of history could be found on every young intellectual's bookshelf. Only in the 1930s, harsh persecution of the communists and increasingly hysterical imperialist propaganda seemingly weakened the popularity of this theory ― but after 1945, it came back with a vengeance.
Born in the 1920s, for the rest of the century communists and associated groups of the radical left remained a force to reckon with, even though in course of time Korean communism (in its North Korean version) drifted as far as possible from the dreams of the early revolutionary idealists…