Conservative groups cho kuk
Conservative activists gathered near Seoul's City Hall Station to call for the resignation of South Korean Justice Minister Cho Kuk on October 3. / Image: Yonhap

North Korea has strongly criticized the Liberty Korea Party because of that party’s attacks against South Korea’s Justice Minister Cho Kuk and allegations of corruption among the minister’s family members. For example, on Sept. 30, Rodong Sinmun criticized actions made by South Korea’s conservative camp, including the Liberty Korea Party, saying, “The traitorous rabble of South Choson (South Korea’s) conservatives, who have already received the severe judgment of the public’s candlelit vigils…as well as impulsive behavior of the conservative rabble, including the Liberty Korea Party…represents the opening scene of a political coup d’état, [and is] a wicked attempt to usurp the government under the pretense of ‘safeguarding the Constitution’ and ‘constitutional state.’”

In the same article, the newspaper further argued that “The [South Korea’s] conservative forces are desperately adhering to an anti-governmental offensive, taking the forced nomination of the justice minister by the leader in power as an opportunity to divert the public’s criticism away from them, all to rally the conservative forces and fulfill their power-hungry ambitions.” The Korean Central New Agency (KCNA) also referenced South Korean media reports when it released a report about calls for reform of South Korea’s prosecutor’s office from academic circles in Busan and Gwangju, among other parts of society. 

Although North Korea’s criticisms of South Korea’s conservative party and its activities are not new, this level of frank and harsh criticism of South Korea’s conservative forces almost reads like an attempt to show support for the current left-wing administration. Indeed, it appears North Korea believes the Moon government is fairly “pro-North Korea.” That North Korean media outlets have suggested that conservative political parties are possibility aiming to stage a “coup d’etat” suggests that North Korean leaders are on guard against the possibility of one of South Korea’s conservative parties regaining control of the government. 

North Korea appears to view two large swathes of South Korea’s leftists as friendly to North Korea. These two groups include former members of PD (People’s Democracy) and NL (National Liberation). Cho Kuk is from the PD camp. The foundation of left-wing activism from the PD camp has always been labor activism and, specifically, pointing out that class conflict between labor and capital under capitalism is the origin of South Korean society’s problems. Apart from Cho, Minjoo Party legislators Song Young-gil and Park Yong-jin, along with legislator Sim Sang-jung from the Justice Party are former PD members. In the Blue House, Ha Seung-chang, the former senior presidential secretary for social innovation, is also considered part of the PD camp.

Cho Kuk was a professor at the University of Ulsan and was a member of the Socialist Labor League of South Korea before it was disbanded in 1992. The goal of the Socialist Workers League was socialist revolution through armed uprising of the people, and to this end the group reportedly manufactured explosives and made plans to seize weapons, as well as making suicide capsules filled with poison. The group was similar to the more recent RO (Revolutionary Organization) established by former legislator Lee Seok-ki. After his arrest for being part of the Socialist Labor League, Cho was sentenced to two years and six months’ imprisonment and three years’ probation for violation of South Korea’s National Security Act.

Following the Gwangju Uprising in 1980, the NL gained ground among university activists following the distribution of “Letters from Kangchol” written by activist Kim Yong-hwan. The Moon administration includes many former NL members including Im Jong-seok, a former presidential chief of staff and Minjoo Party legislators Lee In-young and Woo Sang-ho. When former Chief of Staff Im Jong-seok was chair of the National Federation of Student Union Representatives he once sent former Minjoo Party legislator Lim Su-kyung to North Korea. Kim Young-hwan, for his part, travelled to North Korea in secret. After meeting Kim Il-sung, however, he began distancing himself from the NL camp.

Yoo Dong-ryul, director of the Korea Institute of Liberal Democracy, criticized Cho’s ideology and has revealed that Cho was the author of writings attributed to Ryu Sun-jong in “Our Ideology.” Specifically, two articles were published anonymously that clearly reject and threaten liberal democracy and the market economy and attempt to incite a socialist revolution through the class struggle of the labor class, and thus destabilize the public order of a liberal democracy.

What’s clear is that during his involvement in the Socialist Labor League, Cho was a key theorist second only to the head researcher of the group’s doctrine, Baik Tae-ung (who wrote under the pseudonym Lee Jong-ro). As the incumbent minister of justice, whose role is to protect South Korea’s liberal democratic system and advocate for legal justice, Cho must dispel suspicions and doubts about his qualifications for the job to the people of South Korea.

Moreover, North Korea’s support of Cho Kuk begs the question whether North Korea has not simply pegged him be the heir apparent to Moon. As long as the left and right in South Korea remain divided, North Korea will continue its machinations to further inflame “South on South” conflict. South Korean leaders need to stand up and demand that North Korea abandon its attempts to sow discord in South Korea.

*Translated by Violet Kim

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