Isaac Deutscher 1960

The Communists’ Dilemma

Source: The Reporter, 26 May 1960. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Since the last days of April the agitation in South Korea has subsided and an appearance of normality has returned to Seoul. But despite the momentary calm, the country is in a flux, politically and socially, and many months must pass before any new regime can acquire stability. The nation’s economy is in disarray; unemployment is rampant; discontent is pent up; and feelings will run high during the forthcoming electoral campaign.

Until now South Korea has had only the shadow of a two-party system: the Liberals, who formed Syngman Rhee’s personal following rather than a party; and the Democrats, led by Huh Chung, head of the present caretaker government, who have alternately been the Liberals’ partners in government and the opposition. (Rhee appointed Huh Chung to his present post.) Both the Liberals and the Democrats have been pro-American, though Rhee’s policy, intensely nationalist and anti-Japanese, brought him into conflict with the United States. The State Department, having at last decided to drop Rhee, is now backing the Democrats. But already new parties are forming, which are likely to acquire far larger popular support than either the Liberals or the Democrats, both looked upon as representing landed property and big business, can command. The orientation of these new parties in foreign policy will be of some international importance.

These parties will not be complete newcomers. They are being formed out of the elements of older parties that have been banned or forced to lie low under Rhee’s dictatorship. There were two such parties: the Progressives, banned in 1958, and the so-called Party of Democratic Renewal. Both appealed strongly to the middle and lower middle classes and the peasants and probably had some following among the workers as well. The shift from Right to Left that has already begun favours these parties, in whatever form they reconstitute themselves and however they may be renamed. It may be assumed that any government that tried to rule the country without the backing of these elements would presently find itself suspended in the vacuum in which Rhee found himself.

An international complication is bound to arise from the fact that both the Progressives and the Party of Democratic Renewal have been critical of Rhee’s foreign policy and of his military and diplomatic commitments vis-à-vis the United States. Both parties looked askance at the installation of the American base in South Korea and in varying degrees favoured ‘neutralism’. If the popular vote were to bring these parties into office, they might perhaps embrace a pro-American orientation; but they would find it difficult to do so and they could do it only half-heartedly.

The Communists have played no distinctive part in the upheaval, at least as an organised political force. They had been effectively suppressed by Rhee and did not manage to stage a comeback in time for the crisis. This is not to say that they will not be able to reconstitute themselves and resume activity. They too will be favoured by the shift from Right to Left, although it remains to be seen whether they have lived down or can live down the odium of the role they played in 1950 at the outbreak of the Korean War. Significantly, however, among the buildings the April demonstrators demolished or burned were various headquarters of the Anti-Communist League, which indicates the extent to which Rhee has managed to discredit militant anti-Communism.

Mao and Moscow: What tactics will the Communists adopt? The events in South Korea have caught Moscow, Peking and even Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, by surprise. Pravda, in the critical days, published only reports of the Soviet telegraph agency, and only very briefly referred to the call of North Korean Communists for ‘the withdrawal of American troops, the basic democratisation of the regime in Seoul, and the unification of the country’. Moscow played down the events and Pravda editorially maintained an embarrassed and noncommittal silence. By contrast, Peking, as soon as its official circles recovered from the surprise, organised a mammoth demonstration of ‘solidarity with the people of South Korea’, a demonstration in which 600,000 people marched through the streets of the capital.

Thus the difference in the attitudes of Moscow and Peking became apparent at once. The question pondered in Moscow is whether the progress of revolution in Seoul might not upset Khrushchev’s diplomatic plans, which are based on ‘the preservation of the status quo’. Khrushchev will not be likely to compromise the chances of his diplomatic action for the sake of the South Korean Communists. He has no motive for encouraging them to adopt aggressive and revolutionary tactics.

Khrushchev, however, will not easily forgo the advantages that might accrue to him from the upheaval. The ideal solution from his viewpoint would be to help non-Communist ‘neutralists’, like the Progressives or the Party of Democratic Renewal, assume office and contract out of the American alliance. In other words, Moscow is not inclined to repeat the 1950 attempt to get South Korea under Communist control, although this time the attempt could be made by political instead of military means. Rather, Moscow will aim at turning South Korea into another Iraq or another Egypt.

Will Peking content itself with such an objective? For some time Mao and his followers have been critical of Moscow’s policy in the Middle East. They have taken the view that instead of supporting ‘bourgeois neutralists’ like Nasser and Kassem, the Soviet bloc ought to have encouraged the Arab Communists to adopt aggressive revolutionary policies. But the Middle East lies within the Soviet sphere of activity, and Mao could do no more than record his theoretical objections to Khrushchev’s line.

Now the same issue arises at China’s doorstep, within Mao’s sphere of activity. He has only recently withdrawn his ‘volunteers’ from the northern part of the country concerned. Will Mao now urge the Communists in South Korea to use every opportunity the revolutionary situation offers them and to prepare for a direct struggle for power? And will Khrushchev leave the field to Mao or will he himself determine policy in South Korea?

From the viewpoint of the Soviet bloc, something can be said for either of these courses of action. There may be some advantage, even for Moscow, in allowing Mao Tse-tung to try his hand in South Korea, as long as Moscow itself remains uncommitted (as it was throughout the Korean War) and as long as Mao keeps his lines of retreat open. On the other hand, Mao may find it convenient to adjust his policy to the Khrushchev line, even in Korea. If Moscow were able to manoeuvre so as to help a non-Communist neutralist regime into existence, then China, without incurring any risk, would achieve one of its objectives, namely the withdrawal of South Korea from the American system of alliances. Peking has raised the call for the ‘liquidation of the American base in Korea’, realising that this might have upon the Far East an impact as strong in some respects as the British and French withdrawal from the Suez has had on the Middle East.

This is the great stake for which the Soviet Union and Mao’s China, unexpectedly for themselves, can now begin to play.