In the United States there has been a small uproar against recent efforts by the Obama administration to normalize relations with Cuba. The most fervent protests come from the older members of the Cuban exile community who fled the island nation after the communist takeover in the late 1950s.
This community, however, remains relatively small, and their views on the world, particularly regarding communism, seem increasingly simplistic and outdated.
Now multiply the effects of such sentiments tenfold, and you have South Korea, or more specifically the older generation of South Koreans who still see communism as among the greatest threats and evils.
Like the Cubans in Florida, these South Koreans are the product of their country's struggle against a communist state, and so it is understandable that they hold such views. But these views are just as antiquated as those of the Florida Cubans, and sadly, such a rigid ideology continues to hold sway over South Korea today. Why?
To answer, we must begin by recognizing the historical roots of this rabid anti-communism, which played a central role in the birth of South Korea itself in the late 1940s.
Immediately following the end of World War II and Korea's liberation from Japanese colonial rule, anti-communism was implanted and enforced by the American occupation, and then used as a tool for mobilization, repression, and legitimization by South Korean dictatorships beginning in 1948.
That was when the Republic of Korea was established, and within half a year, the Syngman Rhee government instituted the National Security Law as an all-inclusive legal mechanism to stifle political opposition. Since then, the law has never been repealed, even after the democratization of 1987, although it was modified several times.
This law, born and developed in parallel with South Korea itself, has outlasted five different constitutional systems and an enormous degree of social, economic, and cultural change. Throughout South Korea's history the National Security Law acted as the symbol, originator, and enforcer of the fear of communism, thus serving the interests of various dictatorships in legitimatizing their rule and in suppressing resistance.
The most egregious application of this law came in 1975, when the so-called "Yushin" dictatorship under Park Chung Hee arrested scores of dissidents with fabricated charges of communist activities. It then staged a kangaroo court that sentenced to death eight of these innocent people, who were quickly executed within a day.
The Supreme Court, which upheld this ruling, will always be stained by this shameful act. But the legal tool used to support this outrageous action remained, and it continued to provide justification for arbitrary arrests and prosecutions, as well as torture and worse.
In fact the law still states that violations can be punishable by execution. Such has been the continuing power and politics of anti-communism. To an extent that younger South Koreans today would find unimaginable, anti-communism once dominated their country.
But at the height of the Yushin dictatorship, students began to examine more closely the circumstances of the superpower occupation, national division, and autocracy that brought forth the South Korean state in the 1940s and 1950s.
What they found was that communism was a much more complicated topic than they what had been taught and what most people took for granted. Many South Koreans, as they were told, simply equated communism with North Korea, without wondering how communism or socialism arose around the world, or why it might have been so appealing in Korean in the earlier part of the 20th century.
Sadly, these South Koreans, mostly now in their 50s and older, are mired in their indoctrination under dictatorship and react almost instinctively by blurting out "commie" (ppalgaengi) or simply "leftist." Remarkably, there might be just as many South Korean adherents to anti-communism as North Korean believers of communism, given its absurd distortions by the Northern regime.
In South Korean politics, it remains profitable to engage in "red-baiting," or implying that political opponents are communist, and to stoke the fear of communism by using North Korea as a convenient excuse.
A case in point is the National Security Law itself: After declining in use significantly by the middle of the previous decade, since the presidency of Lee Myung-bak beginning in 2008, the application of the law for all kinds of prosecutorial actions grew precipitously.
Although the law's opening clause was amended after democratization to emphasize "threats against the liberal democratic order," it still forbids not only actions, but even the expression of thoughts, in speech or writing, that can be construed as "anti-state."
One does not even have to approve of North Korea's government or ideology; simply saying something positive about its people warrants arrest.
The bald contradiction between, on the one hand, the legalized suppression of free speech, and on the other, the claims to protect a "liberal democratic order," seems tragically not to disturb many South Koreans. Their ingrained fear of North Korea's ideological influence, however ridiculous this seems in this day and age, persists.
Despite democratization, then, South Koreans, especially the elderly, remain beholden to their history, in an almost juvenile manner. Perhaps a truer maturation of this society will eventually emerge with the passing of its most mature generations.
Kyung Moon Hwang is associate professor in the Department of History, University of Southern California. He is the author of, "A History of Korea ― An Episodic Narrative" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). The Korean translation was published as 황경문, "맥락으로 읽는 새로운 한국사" (21세기 북스, 2011).