Delegates to the 1946 Korean Anarchist Congress
As the leaders of North and South Korea meet this weekend, I thought it would be interesting to reflect on how Korea came to be divided - and how the anarchists responded to the twin challenges of national liberation and repression, in this extract from my forthcoming book In the Shadow of a Hurricane. The Korean anarchist movement is a fascinating case study as it emerged as a resistance movement to Japanese imperialism, consolidating in 1910 after the Japanese invasion of Korea, achieved a full-blown revolution in Manchuria over 1929-1932 (wonderfully told by Emilio Crisi's new book on the topic), was *unbroken* by World War II - unlike the movements in Europe under Nazi-Fascism - and yet developed in a distinctly libertarian reformist direction in grappling with how to establish an independent Korean nation against the meddling of other imperialist powers, the USA, Russia and China.
In Korea, the anarchists remained a powerful force at the end of the Second World War. In 1940, the anarchists Yu Rim of the Korean Anarcho-Communist Federation (HMGY) and Yu Ja-Myeong of the Korean Revolutionist Federation (HHY) and Korean Anarchist Federation in China (HMY-J) were elected to the exile Korean Provisional Government in Chungching, China. The following year, other HMGY anarchists like Jeong Hwa-Ahm and Park Kee-Seong became members of its shadow parliament. In 1945, Yu Rim was elected to the cabinet. The Provisional Government declared itself in 1941 to be "a Government established by the national united front of revolutionary parties and socialistic parties,” and included the HMGY, the Korean People's United Revolutionist Federation, the Korean People's Revolutionary Party, the Liberation Federation, and the Korean Independence Party of Kim Gu, who became premier of the exile government. In the meantime, anarchist guerrillas were incorporated into the armed forces of the Provisional Government. The anarchist Korean Youth Wartime Operations Unit, for example, which had been fighting the Japanese since 1938, was incorporated into the newly founded Korean Liberation Army as its 5th Detachment (later, its 2nd Detachment). The defeat of imperial Japan saw Korea and Taiwan made independent, and the Korean Liberation Army ceased its activities. However, matters were not so simple. The Soviet Union was interested in regaining territories lost in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, and in expanding its sphere of influence in the east. Soviet relations with the Allies in East Asia were increasingly fraught – particularly given American support for the Guomindang in China – and were shaped by growing Western alarm at Communist expansion. While the American occupation forces allowed the Korean Provisional Government under Premier Kim Gu to return to Korea, it had no official standing. Conflicts between the Americans, based in the south of Korea, and the Soviet Union, which had entered the north, were resolved by a plan for joint American-Soviet Union "trust regime" to last five years.
When the trusteeship plans were announced in December 1945, riots broke out across the Korean peninsula. Korean Communists initially opposed the deal but switched their stance in early 1946 to one of support, following a Soviet directive that the local Party must support Communist territorial gains in the north. Nonetheless, the deal was widely opposed – hardly suprising given the long history of struggle against Japanese colonialism, the anti-imperialist sentiments of the left, the strength of Korean nationalism, and ongoing Allied talk of the right to self-determination. The dispute appears to have shattered the Provisional Government: Kim Gu apparently plotted a coup shortly after the trusteeship announcement, but was arrested, and warned, on pain of death, to desist. The riots were suppressed by occupation troops, a number of anti-trusteeship activists were assassinated, and publications opposed to trusteeship were suppressed. The country was divided into two zones of influence, the north ruled by the Russian military through proxy "people's committees" and the south ruled by the US military through the remnants of the old Japanese colonial administration. In the north, the Soviet Union formed a Communist government on the lines of those established in East Europe, and headed by Communist leader Kim Il Sung, who had been a Communist guerrilla implicated in attacks on the anarchists in the 1930s. Under his rule, opponents - ranging from anarchists, to the Korean Workers' Party and the moderate Korean Democratic Party – were suppressed, and Korean Workers' Party leader Pak Hun Yong was executed in 1955. Even independent-minded communist groups were caught up in the repression. Even by this time, however, Korean anarchism had been decimated in the North by ongoing Communist incursions that dated back until the late 1920s.
In the south, the anarchists remained a powerful force, but were deeply divided. Post-war meetings demonstrated that a sector of the movement had moved from an anarchist approach to national liberation to an openly nationalist one. In 1945, most of the anarchist groups were united as the Federation of Free Society Builders (JSBY), also known as the League of Free Social Constructors. This was founded in Seoul at an All-Korean Anarchist Congress by about almost 100 delegates who had emerged from underground in Korea, China and Japan. Among the founding organisations of the JSBY were the Korean Anarchist Federation in China, the East Asian Anarchist Federation, the Korean Youth Federation in South China (HNCY), the League of Truth and Fraternity (JHY), the syndicalist Dong Heong Labour Union (DHNJ) of Japan, the syndicalist Wonsan General Trade Union that had emerged in Korea itself, and more than 12 "black societies" from Japan – such as the Black Friends' League – and across Korea. Overall, the founding JSBY congress supported the unification of Korea, and independence, but treated this as a prelude to social revoluton. It also formed two organisatons: the Autonomous Workers' League (JNJ) and the Autonomous Village Movement (JMU). On the other hand, however, a clearly nationalist tendency had also emerged. Yu Rim of the HMGY and Yu Ja-Myeong of the HHY established the General League of Korean Anarchists (HML), representing the “anarchist” bloc in the provisional government. Now, while it might be argued that the libertarian participation in the Provisional Government did not involve participation in a state – that the Provisional Government was itself simply a broad anti-imperialist front – it is clear that this was not the case. The Provisional Government had aimed to take power after the defeat of the Japanese, and the anarchists who participated in it clearly recognised it as a statist formation.
Dongyoun Hwang writes in Anarchism in Korea: Independence, Transnationalism and the Question of National Development, 1919-1984 (SUNY Press, State University of New York, New York, USA, 2016) that at a preparatory conference in February 1946, the “crucial issue for [the anarchists was] to lay out an autarkic economic system in Korean, which could make the country truly independent. In short, what was discussed and decided at this meeting was to place the accomplishment of ‘national democratic revolution’ as their new task. A follow-up, much larger conference was soon held two months later from April 20 to 23, 1946 at Hongchu Buddhist Temple in a small town called Ahui in Southern Gyeongsang Province. Titled the National Convention of Korean Anarchists… or the National Convention of Anarchist Representatives… it was the first national convention and initiated by Yu Rim. At it, ninety-seven anarchists were registered and present, and it marked a turning point in the history of Korean anarchism in terms of its direction after 1945. Attendees included almost all of those who were affiliated with two major Korean anarchist organizations at the time, the Free Society Builders Federation… organised in Seoul by Yi Jeonggyu and Yi Eulgyu after Japan’s surrender, and the General Federation of Korean Anarchists... Many Korean anarchsits who attended the convention were affiliated with both organizations simultaneously, mostly maintaining dual memberships. The convention was chaired by Yu Rim, Yi Jeonggyu, and Sin Jaemo, and lasted for three days. It was of cardinal significance in that Korean anarchists now formally began to identify themselves not just as anarchist but, just like Yu Rim called himself, as ‘one who favors an autonomous government’ (jayul jeongbu juuija), distinguishing themselves from conventional anarchists who were usually believed to negate the state. This.... identification constituted a major breakthrough to post-1945 activities.”
The outcome of the conference was the formation of an Independent Workers' and Peasants' Party (DNN) to participate in future elections. Its mouthpiece was The Workers' and Peasants' Newspaper. The Party’s aims were quite clear: John Crump in Anarchism and Nationalism in East Asia (University of York, York, UK , 1995) quotes the argument used in support of forming the DNN at Anui: "We, the Korean people, have today neither a free country or nor a free government. If we do not demonstrate our ability to govern ourselves we are about to fall under the rule of a foreign trusteeship. Under these conditions, even anarchists are bound to respond to the urgent desire of the people to build our own country and our own government. Therefore the anarchists must form our own political party and play a positive role in building a new Korea … a positive role in politics."
In the meantime, the growing north/south divide in Korea, deepened by the intervention of the great powers, would escalate into a bloody war. The United Independentist Conference collapsed. In 1948, Kim Gu met with Kim Il-Sung, with a view to uniting north and south Korea, but failed and ended up signing a document in favour of the trusteeship. He was later assassinated. Following a separate election in the American-linked south – boycotted by the DNN – the divide was formalised with the proclamation of the “Republic of Korea”. Kim’s predecessor in the Provisional Government, Syngman Rhee (Lee Seung-Man), was elected president. The north responded by proclaiming the “People's Republic of Korea” and the divisive die was cast. In 1950, the Korean War broke out between the north and the south, with the Soviet Union and Mao’s China supporting the north, and the United States the south. In a replay of Stalin’s policies from 1939, the Chinese Communist Party combined support for Kim with the conquest of Tibet.
This was one of the many “hot” wars of the Cold War, and lasted until a stalemate was reached in 1953, with the country still divided roughly along the 38th Parallel. Half a million Westerners died, along with 2-million Koreans, in a war driven by the great powers, and which made no real difference to the geographical division of Korea – it simply hardened the division into two camps, and the alliance of each camp with its foreign backers. By that time, the first of the post-war South Korean dictatorships was formed, when Syngman Rhee closed the National Assembly and began to rule as an autocrat. Subsequently, the events of the Korean War would be echoed in Vietnam, where the country was roughly divided along the 17th Parallel. In 1960, the Northern Vietnam government advocated a war to liberate the South, where a Vietcong, or National Liberation Front, was formed. By 1965, the Vietnam War broke out, with the United States occupying the territory in the South. Heavily based among the peasantry, the armed forces of the National Liberation Front were – just like the CCP army in China before 1949 – quite outside of popular control. They were subject, instead, to a party hierarchy. While Birchall is correct to point to the National Liberation Front’s politics of a cross-class alliance throughout the 1960s – and its weak roots amongst the urban working class – it must be stressed that the eventual withdrawal of the United States in 1975 was followed by the formation of a “People’s Republic” of Vietnam under Ho Chi-minh.
The Korean “anarchists” of the DNN and South and North Kyeungsang Province Anarchist Conference lines had little opportunity to carry out their programmes. South Korea would fall under a series of repressive governments from the 1950s. The stridently anti-Communist Syngman Rhee forced the anarchist movement, as well as other left-wing groups, underground, and the DNN collapsed in all but the cities of Taegu and Pusan, only recovering by 1956 when the country briefly liberalised again. But the DNN was finally repressed following the military coup of General Park Jung-Hi in 1961. An aggressively enforced Anti-Communist Law passed in the wake of the coup in 1961 (and only repealed in 1991) drew a broad definition of those whom Park’s junta saw as the enemies of the state: anyone sharing “a world-view or ideology with radical, socialist, anarchist or communist inclinations.”