By Park Si-soo (The Korea Times, 11-19-2010) Escorted to an execution chamber on July 31, 1959, in Seoul, Cho Bong-am reportedly said, “If I committed something wrong, it was that I entered politics. Please give me something alcoholic to drink.” Shortly afterward, Cho — a 60-year-old politician at the time, sentenced to death on charges of colluding with North Korean spies to subvert South Korea — was hanged.
The execution was carried out just 17 hours after the Supreme Court rejected Cho family’s call for a retrial. At that time, his family claimed that the espionage charges were concocted using faulty evidence and manipulated testimonies. Following the rapid execution of Cho, who was the inaugural minister of agriculture and a two-term lawmaker, viewed as a strong challenger to then President Syngman Rhee during an authoritarian era, the bereaved family had to suffer fierce public attacks as they were labeled communists. They received no pension or other benefits usually granted to the family of former ministers upon their deaths.
But recently, Cho, also famously known by his penname Juksan, the former chairman of the Progressive Party, has been given an opportunity to be cleared of the charges as the Supreme Court held a hearing on the death Thursday, reopening the case for the first time in more than five decades to determine a second ruling on whether Cho’s execution was legally justifiable.
The retrial came after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded in September, 2007 that the original trial was clouded by mystery and the case should be retried. The commission said Cho was viewed as the victim of a “judicial murder.” It said the subversion charge against him was created by the Syngman Rhee administration to “get rid of Rhee’s strongest rival in the presidential election.”
Cho earned nearly 2 million votes in the 1956 presidential election, accounting for nearly 30 percent of all eligible votes and posing a great political threat to Rhee who wished to stay at the helm “eternally.” Cho w arrested in January 1958 and was prosecuted for violating the National Security Law.
At the court hearing on Thursday, Lawyer Choi Byeong-mo who is representing the bereaved family claimed Cho was innocent, saying President Rhee killed Cho by having the subversion charges against him acknowledged by the top court. “This is a crime President Rhee committed to get rid of his political rival,” Choi said. “A special military unit questioned Cho and his aides, which was illegal. Moreover, tortuous interrogation techniques were used to have his aides falsely testify that Cho was financed by North Korea to launch pro-communism campaigns aimed at destabilizing society.”
The prosecution did not take a clear stance on whether Cho was guilty or not. Instead, it said it’s inappropriate to retry the case at the moment as neither witnesses nor detailed documents on the case exist. Asked whether Cho contacted a pro-North Korean activist, surnamed Yang, lawyer Choi said Yang was once a soldier specially trained to infiltrate the North to collect intelligence there so that Cho’s meeting with Yang does not constitute an espionage charge.
The top court said it will make a ruling by the end of the year.
On Jan. 13, 1958, Cho was arrested by police on charges of spying and violating the National Security Law. He was charged with being sympathetic with North Korea’s reunification policy and receiving funds from the North. He was initially sentenced a five-year jail term at a district court. But both the appellate court and the Supreme Court sentenced him to death on Feb. 27, 1959. He was executed five months later even despite opposition from the United States.