- Ham Seok-heon
Infobox Korean name
Ham Seok-heon (
13 March 1901- 4 February 1989) was a notable figure in the Religious Society of Friends(Quaker) movement in Korea, and was nicknamed the "Gandhi of Korea." Ham was an important Asian voice for human rightsand non-violence during the 20th century, despite numerous imprisonments for his convictions. He was formally a Quaker, which is a nonsectarian Christiangroup, but he also concluded that all religions are one, atypical of most Christian thinkers.
In 2000, Seok-Heon Ham was selected by the Republic of Korea as a national cultural figure.
* March 13, 1901: Born in Pyungahn-buk-do (province)
* 1906: Entered a missionary school of Deok-il Elementary School
* 1916: Graduated from Yang-si Public Elementary School
List of Korea-related topics
List of Koreans
Christianity in KoreaI. Biography of Sok Hon Ham (1901-1989). By Sung-Soo Kim
"I am a man who has been 'kicked' by God, just as a boy kicks a ball in the direction he wants it to go. I have been driven and led by Him." 3
"He is a symbol of Korea's conscience throughout the era of Japanese colonialism in the Korean peninsula, communist totalitarianism in North Korea, and military dictatorship in South Korea."4
Sok Hon Ham was born in 1901 in a tiny district near the Yellow Sea in the farthest northwest corner of North Korea. Korea at that time was in a dire political and economic state. Between 1895 and 1910 it succumbed to a series of dreadful events: Queen Min was raped then killed by Japanese soldiers; the Korean king's desperate attempts to obtain American governmental backing for his unstable country failed; famine and plague were a constant threat to the nation's populace. What is more, the Korean peninsula suffered from the hostility and conflicts between Russia, China and Japan, all of whom coveted Korea in order to further their strategic position and national prestige in North East Asia. These countries saw Korea as a stepping stone toward expansionism. Inevitably, these expansionist movements led to the Sino-Japanese War conducted on Korean soil in 1884. The defeat of China (ruled by the Qing Dynasty) was followed by the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). As a result of Russia's defeat, Japan declared its intention of exercising hegemony in Korean affairs, and proceeded to increase its control not only in the Korean peninsula but also in the whole of North-East Asia. Theodore Roosevelt believed that it was essential to approve Japanese ascendancy in Korea as a quid pro quo for Japan's recognition of the domination over the Philippines by the USA. This bargain between the USA and Japan was struck in the clandestine Taft-Katsura Agreement of July 1905.
Britain too, in re-negotiating the terms of the Anglo- Japanese Alliance in August 1905, recognized Japan's right to take appropriate action for the "guidance control, and protection" of Korea.5 But Britain, France and Germany also took a part in the race to wrest economic concessions from a weak Korean government, turning Korea into a happy hunting ground for concessionaires. Sok Hon Ham grew up in this colonial situation. When he was four years old (1905) the sovereignty of the nation was removed by- Japan through the Unequal Treaty of 1905 (so-called "Protectorate Treaty"), and when he was nine (1910), Korea fell entirely under Japanese rule.
Sok Hon Ham grew up in a poor village. He first attended a Presbyterian school, and from his early years was influenced by Christianity. The onset of organized Protestant mission work in Korea dates from 1884, when the American Presbyterian Missionaries arrived in Korea.6 From that time, Christianity, and Protestantism in particular, exerted great influence on political and modern educational movements.7 By transmitting Western ideas of individualism and democracy, missionaries played a key role in awakening a national consciousness among the Korean population. Moreover, Korean nationalists were eager for a Western education8 and private schools, many of them founded by Protestant missionaries, made a key contribution to the development of modern education in Korea. Between 1883 and 1909, throughout the Korean peninsula, 29 private schools were founded (including one private Lyceum at Kando, Chien-tao in Chinese, in Manchuria).9 These schools were founded either by Korean national leaders, who were mostly influenced by Western missionaries, or run by Western missionary themselves. Thus, Protestant private schools played a vital part in propagating nationalist thought.10
These schools not only spread Western knowledge but also acted as greenhouses for nationalist activity. Discussion, debates, oratorical contests, and campaigns of various kinds were held under educational institution sponsorship, fanning the nationalistic enthusiasm of the students. By spreading Western ideas, missionaries played a momentous part in awakening a national consciousness among the Korean people.11 That is why many Private schools were forced to close, and after the annexation, Japan's educational policy became even less favourable for Korean schools.
Protestantism was welcomed by the non-yangban (traditional aristocrats) intellectuals and by the business community, and this was particularly the case in areas of developing economic activity, such as P'yongan province (Sok Hon Ham's native region). Confucianism was less influential at P'yongan, and accounts of the distinctly favourable response to Christianity in that region link this to the existence of significant social groups who did not have a vested interest in the status quo.12 Protestantism thus secured its strongest initial support in North Korea, where it was able to capitalize upon the long-standing grievances of the people of that region opposing the yangban of Seoul. Sok Hon Ham recalled why and how Christianity was more popular in P'yongan, his hometown, than in South Korea:
"I had the good fortune to study the 'new education' --- This was because Christianity, which was just beginning to be propagated in Korea, entered my village. My province, of P'yongan was known 'as Korea's 'heathen Galilee', and for centuries its 'people of low birth' had been the object of scorn and contempt. People of my village, especially, like 'Zebulun13 and Naphtali14, were referred to as the 'scum of the sea'. Thus we lived amidst scorn and shame. However, this misfortune became our fortune. Being at the bottom level of society, there was peace even among the prevailing political chaos. Just as we accepted scorn and disdain so also we were quick to accept new things and new ideas. Indeed we stood at the frontier of a new age."15
Protestantism was closely embraced not only as a religious belief but also for its political, social, enlightening and cultural archetypes and movements. In 1907 the New People's Association (Sinminhoe) was created covertly by members of the press, military men, and businessmen, most of them Protestant Christians from northwest Korea. These included the Christian nationalists, Ch'ang-ho An, Tong-hwi Yi, originator of the first Korean Communist Party in the early 1920s, and Sung-hun Yi, founder of the Osan School and Sok Hon Ham's teacher.
In 1909, the "Million Souls for Christ Campaign" was successful in bringing about mass conversions to the Protestant religion.
Against this historical background, Sok Hon Ham, as a young Christian student, was active in the March First Independence Movement of 1919. This Movement was a national protest aimed at focusing world attention on the oppressive colonial rule of Japan, an attempt to draw the attention of the world to the intolerance of the ruling Japanese toward the people and culture of Korea. Thus the Movement hoped to regain self-determination for Korea, just as the peoples of Europe were given self-determination by the Allied Powers. The doctrine of the Movement centered on the self-determination of nations, its motives generated by the Korean nationalist movement.
Hitherto the nationalist movement had concentrated on the activities of exiles and on hidden alliances. It had relied on education movements or religious activities. An extensive, nationwide struggle developed, aimed at recovering Korea's missing sovereignty.16 But the March
First Movement was brutally smashed by Japanese soldiers. It is estimated that two million people took part in 1,500 demonstrations, 7,509 people were slaughtered and 15,961 wounded. 715 private houses, 47 churches, and 2 school buildings were destroyed by fire. Somewhere in the region of 46,000 were arrested, of whom almost 10,000 (including 186 women), were tried and sentenced. The largest protests were in P'yongan, Kyonggi, and Kyongsang provinces, areas which also suffered the highest casualties. People of all ages, occupations, and creeds took part.17 Among the 33 national' leaders of the Movement, no fewer than 16 were Christians, 15 followers of the Chondokyo religion (Native Korean religion), only 2 being Buddhists.18
Through his first-hand experience of this Movement, Sok Hon Ham began to acquire a degree of self- consciousness, and, as a result of his part in the March First Movement, he was forced to leave his school and return to his native village, where for two years he wasted away in mental distress. As a consequence of his experience of this Movement, he began to feel some uncertainty about the Presbyterian Church, which he had regularly attended since his childhood, and this uncertainty exacerbated his inner turmoil.19 As I have pointed out, when Christianity first entered Korea, at the end of the 19th century, the Christian faith helped fuel Korean nationalism. But gradually the problems inherent in such a combination became more and more apparent. In spite of the March First Movement, as Japan consolidated its hold over Korea, the Japanese began a regime of "benevolent" and "cultural" propaganda. Correspondingly, former Korean
Christian nationalists began to accept these policies, accommodating the Japanese authorities, thereby compromising their own demands for national independence for Korea.
In 1921, having experienced doubt about Christianity for two years, Sok Hon Ham entered Osan High school. Here he met two teachers who were to have a remarkable effect on his future life. One was Sung-hun Yi, one of the leaders of the March First Movement and a Christian leader within Korea. He was the founder and principal of the Osan High school. He inspired Sok Hon Ham through his ideas of national spirit and patriotism. The other teacher was Young-mo Yu, a man of distinguished erudition in Oriental philosophy. It was he who introduced Sok Hon Ham to Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, as well as other Oriental classical philosophies.
Meanwhile, an interest in new social and political ideas had emerged among groups of intellectuals active in the March First Movement. In the wake of the Movement, the Japanese pursued a more "generous" policy toward Korean culture, and nationalists were relatively unfettered and able to discuss social, cultural and, within limits, political topics. Hence, the diffusion of left-wing philosophy introduced fresh concepts, to the argument of the issue of Korean sovereignty.20 This phenomenon was particularly prevalent between 1920 and 1925.21 By 1922 there were 5,728 organizations of all types registered with the colonial police. They included study groups, youth leagues, labour and academic societies, tenant alliances, social clubs and religious sects.22 The Japanese police provided the following breakdown: Registered Korean Organizations, 1922; Political and intellectual 48; Academic 203; Labour 204; Youth 1,185; Church youth 639; Religious 1,742; Tenant 26; Self-improvement 235; Women's 56; Recreation/social 348; Children's 40; Industrial 470; Savings and purchasing cooperatives 53; Health 6; Anti-drinking/smoking 193; Other 280.23
In some quarters, the interest in new ideas took a revolutionary form. After the Russian Revolution, the rise of the Soviet Union, with its opposition to capitalism and imperialism, appeared as a protector of oppressed nations. In colonial Asia nationalism began to be linked to socialism under the guise of self-determination of nations. Lenin declared his willingness to support anti-colonial movements among the oppressed nations of the world. To some Korean nationalists the only proper policy, as a colony of Japan, was full-scale war against Japan, a war they hoped and anticipated would be assisted by the Soviet government.24 Accordingly, the "triumph" of the Russian Revolution created an escalation of ideas and hope for revolutionary change. This interest in socialism was evident among Korean intelligentsia and students within the country and in exile. Since the time that Korea had become a Japanese colony, much nationalist activity had been conducted abroad. Most exiles crossed the Yalu River into West or North Kando or into the Russian Maritime Territory, with a smaller number of emigres going to the USA. Clearly those in exile in the areas of China and Russia, maintained close links with Chinese and Russian nationalists and moved in left-wing circles. Many of these exiles believed socialism presented a solution to the dilemmas of socioeconomic reform and of national liberation. The increased interest in socialism gave rise to the formation of the Koryo (Korean) Communist Party in Shanghai in 1920. Under the guidance of Tong-hwi Yi, it obtained financial assistance from Russia. Yi and his associates were among those nationalists in Shanghai who urged armed battle and social revolution.
Revolutionary ideas came also from Japan, which was the primary destination for Koreans studying abroad. By 1922 there were several thousand Korean students there.25
In 1923, Sok Hon Ham went to Tokyo Teachers' College to pursue his studies in history. In September of that year there occurred a great earthquake which destroyed two-thirds of the city. After the earthquake the Japanese government feared an insurrection an the part of the socialists, and it deliberately propagated a rumour that the Koreans in Japan were planning a revolt, thus instigating a massacre of more than five thousand Korean people. During this time of turbulence, Sok Hon Ham experienced his first period in prison. He was placed there by the Japanese police in order to protect "innocent Koreans" from the Japanese aggressors. Although he stayed in the prison only a single night, it left a deep impression on him.26
Social revolution was a burning issue in the tearooms and drinking houses of Tokyo, and Korean students were attracted by the inspirational speeches of the revolutionaries. The post-World War I economic slump had brought substantial economic and social difficulties and the working class and tenants of Japan grew into an organized force. Korean students in Japan had always maintained close links with one another, and at this time several revolutionary groups were formed. Among them was the Korean Self-Supporting Students' Association, the main socialist organization. Its journal, Comrade, stressed student and labourer relief and the importance of tackling the roots of class conflict. This and other groups propagated the notion of social revolution and were fascinated with anarchism as well as other revolutionary beliefs. They advocated liberty for the individual, rejected the legitimacy of any political power whatsoever, and recommended the use of terror. A particularly striking instance of this was the assassination attempt on the Japanese emperor by Yol Pak in 1923. There was also a group of Marxist theorists who pleaded that Korean sovereignty could be obtained only by removing Japanese capitalism, and to this aim they created the Choson Communist Party in 1925 and started an organized anti-Japanese battle most particularly through working class agitation.27
During this time of social unrest in Japan, Sok Han Ham's thoughts were torn between Christian ethics and the politics of socialism as the key to the salvation of Korea. But political radicalism included aspects which he could not wholly approve of. For example, he disliked the anarchists' advocacy of terror and Communism's advocacy of atheism. He thus experienced great internal conflict:
I entered a period of great agony. Could Christianity really save my people? Under the circumstances, it appeared that only a social revolution could provide the answer. But I could not bring myself to forsake my faith and join in the socialist movement which totally disregarded all sense of morality. For a long period I was in agony over the conflict between Christianity and socialism."28
In 1924, Sok Han Ham met Uchimura Kanzo (1861-1930), a Japanese religious thinker and critic, who had 'a significant formative influence on many writers and intellectual leaders of modern Japan. Sok Han Ham came under the sway of Uchimura's Non-Church Movement. This rejected the superficial formalism and hypocrisy of the church and emphasized a faith in atonement through the Cross.29 As Sok Han Ham participated in Uchimura's Bible studies, his inner conflicts, between socialism and Christianity, were gradually resolved, and he made a firm commitment to live as a true Christian. He recalled that experience: "I developed the confidence to be able to say 'This is real faith', 'This is the way the Bible must be read!'30 Consequently, he chose Christianity rather than socialism as his ideal.
In 1928, after his graduation from Tokyo Teacher's College, Sok Hon Ham returned to Korea to teach history at Osan school, a job he wanted wholeheartedly to retain for the rest of his life. In 1928 his friend, Kyo-Sin Kim, began to publish a monthly magazine, Songso Choson (Bible Korea). Between February 1934 and December 1935 work by Sok Hon Ham, Korean History from a Christian Perspective, was serialized in the magazine. This was his first publication, which was later revised and re- published under the title Korean History from a Spiritual Perspective: Queen Of Suffering.
If we examine his writings at this time, it is evident that Sok Hon Ham's thesis centered on the significance of "losers" and the role they might play in world history. He began from the premise that world history appears to justify the claims of "victors", since it is usually written by those who govern, the 'winners'. It is hard to apprehend that "losers" and ordinary people also contribute to history. Korea's national identity had been profoundly shaped by a sense of itself as a "loser" in world history. Accordingly, Sok Hon Ham highlighted the contribution and significance of the "losers", in a paradoxical effort to generate national pride. He defined the role of Korea as the Queen of Suffering. Equating it with Christ as the Son of Suffering, he began to forge a new identity and mission for Korea:
"Herein is our mission; to bear our load of iniquity without grumbling, without evading and with determination and in seriousness. By bearing the load we can deliver ourselves and the world as well. The results of iniquity will never vanish without someone bearing their burden. For the sake of God and humanity we must bear it --- The consequences of the world's iniquities are laid on us, and if we fail in cleansing them, then there is no one else to do it. Hence, it is our mission, to which only we are equal. Neither Britain nor America can cope with it, for they are too well-off, too highly placed, to do it."31
Using his own Biblical interpretation of Korean history, Sok Hon Ham provided the mission and vision not only for Koreans, but also "losers" and ordinary people everywhere. Those "losers" were able to find their own identity and position in world history, having previously failed to come to terms with either its "Suffering" or its causes.
From the 1930s, emphasis in the study of Korean history was put largely on the processes through which society was formed. A tendency emerged that explained sequential levels of social development in terms of economic phases. Scholars of this penchant were influenced by Marxism to put a historical materialist structure on the historical development of Korea. In connection with this, in 1930 Sok Hon Ham, as a nationalist and a history teacher was arrested by the Japanese authorities, suspected of Marxism-Leninism. At that time, the left-wing and communist movements in Korea often interrelated with anti-Japanese movements, and the Japanese had difficulty differentiating between social revolutionaries and nationalists. Later, like the Chinese nationalists, Korean nationalists began to split, as rivalry between the traditional or "right" nationalists and the Communist nationalists grew.32 Indeed most of the nationalist Korean intelligentsia did absorb left-wing theory and were seriously preoccupied with subverting Japanese capitalist rule. Eventually Sok lion Ham stayed in Chungchu police station for a week.33 His nationalist activities continued to be seen by the Japanese as interrelated with the communist movement. Even though Bible Korea had no more than two hundred subscribers, its contents, including Sok Hon Ham's writings of Korean history, ran foul of the Japanese censor and the magazine frequently had to cease publication. In particular, copies containing the writings on Korean history were seized and often destroyed even though he had moderated his language in order to pass the censor.
In 1938, in order to suppress all Korean national consciousness and culture, the authorities ordered the use of the Japanese language instead of the indigenous language in all Korean schools. When Sok Hon Ham refused to carry out the decree, it led to his forced resignation from the school he loved. It was to prove his first and last regular job. Nevertheless, through a Sunday meeting, he continued to teach his beloved former-students as well as act as administrator for the Songsari farming school. But the Japanese did not approve of the content of his teaching or the style of his leadership within the farming school. The Japanese authorities saw the characteristics of Sok Hon Ham's farming school as "communistic."
Meanwhile, from 1937 Japan started an extensive assault on China and in 1941 bombed Pearl Harbor. During the war Japan conducted a so-called nationwide mobilization policy, which was enforced with extraordinary harshness within Korea. Japan launched a campaign to destroy Korean national selfhood under the motto "Japan and Korea are One Entity". As an initial phase in executing its assimilation policy, Japan prohibited all kinds of cultural practices that might be regarded as nationalistic. Not only the study of the Korean language but also that of Korean history was considered dangerous. Eventually, on the basis of his previous writings of Korean history, as well as his "communistic" administration of the farming school, Sok Hon Ham was imprisoned again in 1940 at Taedong police station for one year. When he was released, he learnt of the death of his father and the destruction of his home. Furthermore, the Japanese forbade him to teach or run the farming school. Thereafter, he took up farming as a living and adopted the traditional Korean dress which he wore until the end of his life. But it was not the end of suffering for him nor was it the end of suffering for colonized Koreans.
In 1942, prominent figures in the Korean Language Society were arrested on accusations of fomenting nationalist activity. As a result of the brutal torture to which they were subjected by the Japanese police, Yun-jae Yi and others died in prison. Sok Hon Ham and a number of his friends who had been publishing Bible Korea were again arrested. Once more, he was imprisoned for a year. He says of his imprisonment during this period:
"Those were the days when Imperialist Japan was resorting to the most oppressive measures to wipe the Korean race from the face of this earth. In 1943sic34, the Japanese authorities arrested all the readers of the magazine [Bible Korea] , charging us with harbouring dangerous ideas, and abolished the magazine itself. The case was dropped after we had spent one year in prison"35
Consequently, in the years up to 1945, Sok Non Ham suffered imprisonment no fewer than five times. That is why, when commenting on his life in this period he stated: "My only crime was that of being a Korean."36 He had been a constant active Korean nationalist against Japanese colonial rule.
In 1940, on the eve of the Second World War, the Japanese deported most of the Christian missionaries.37 By this stage, Christians in Korea were also a target of Japanese persecution for political as much as cultural reasons. In discussing the characteristics of Korean Christianity, Bruce Cumings points out that Christianity took hold in Korea in a way that it did not in China or Japan.38 When Protestant missionaries entered China and Japan, they came at a time of, and in connection with, gunboat diplomacy and mercantile exploitation. But in Korea, through a mixture of fortune and astuteness, the circumstances of Protestant churches were entirely different. Unlike China and Japan, the first colonizers in Korea were not Westerners nor Western missionaries, but the more harsh colonial rulers of imperial Japan. Thus, Protestantism had the advantage of entering the old-fashioned "Hermit Kingdom", Korea, prior to other styles of modern civilization (apart from austere Japanese) taking possession within the minds of the population.39
Furthermore, the Western missionaries brought with them modern scientific and up-to-date knowledge in every field, filling a vacuum created by Korean isolation. Korea needed, and avidly desired, these new ideas if it were to move toward modernization and achieve its independence. Moreover the missionaries' were also sympathetic toward Korean nationalism during the period of Japanese rule.40 Because of their involvement in schooling, they developed close ties with many young, intelligent Koreans who would later become leaders of the new Korea. Thus, the missionaries backed those nationalists who resisted Japan's intrusions on Korean sovereignty. In particular, several missionaries offered direct and indirect help to the Korean independence movement. In this respect, the coming of Christianity to Korea was different from China and Japan. This is still evident today if one compares the ratio of Christians among the populations of China, Korea and Japan. In 1990 the percentage of Christians in China and Japan were approximately one percent, whereas in South Korea it is over twenty percent an outstandingly high percentage by comparison.
Meanwhile, in 1945 Japan's defeat in World War II not only led to the liberation of Korea from Japanese control, but also to Korea becoming once again a battlefield. This time the battle involved capitalist and communist nations (represented by the USA and USSR) in a global contest. Having been an "oppressed nation" during World War II, Korea became an "artificial barrier" marking the battle line in the Cold War; this artificial division of the country came about solely because of the Cold War. The Korean nation was divided by the victors, supposedly on a temporary basis. Consequently, South Korea came under the control of the USA and North Korea under the control of the USSR.
Immediately after the liberation of Korea, Christians once again became a target, but this time for the communists in North Korea. Although the number of Christians in the general population of the whole of Korea was not more than two percent in 1945, Christians were numerous and influential in certain areas, notably in P'yongyang, and had an extensive affinity with American missionaries. What is more, American sources viewed the Christian churches as the strongest force against the regimes of both the Japanese and the Communists. Various sources maintain that several Christian nationalists were jailed and Christian political activities were stamped out even in the late 1940s in North Korea.41
By the time Korea was liberated, Sok Hon Ham was recognized as a national leader. As he pointed out, it was an unexpected position to find him in:
"When Liberation suddenly came I found myself in a position of leadership. People had pointed at me with pride and said, 'Going to prison is his occupation', and now I was chosen to lead these very people."42
At the time the Japanese left Korea, Sok Hon Ham was still farming for his daily livelihood. When the USSR took control of North Korea, the authorities utilized the so-called Provisional People's Committee. Using those who had been prominent in the independence movement, including democratic nationalists like Sok Hon Ham, they consigned to it governmental functions under the supervision of the Soviet armed forces. Sok Hon Ham was appointed Minister of Education in this provisional government of P'yongyang province. He believed that his religious neutrality among nationalists in North Korea, led him to be appointed Minister of Education, over and above other nationalist leaders.43
Korean society in 1945 was a maelstrom of old and new classes, political groups, and left and right ideologies. On 23rd November 1945, the Sinuiju Students Revolt took place in North Korea due to the polarization of Korean politics between nationalists and communists. 5,000 nationalists protested against the Korean and Soviet backed communist policies. In one particularly bloody incident communist forces fired on a crowd of nationalist protesters. As a result, 23 nationalists died and another 27 people were seriously injured, more than 80 were arrested at the hands of the Red Army and the communist forces. The Red Army proclaimed martial law44, and Kim I1-Sung personally visited Sinuiju, seeking to mend rifts between communists and Christian nationalists.45 Although Sok Hon Ham was not a direct leader of the student revolt, his position as Minister of Education, as well as his standing as a Christian nationalist, meant he was held responsible. He was, therefore imprisoned for two months, suffering physical violence from the communist forces.
During this period of disorder, the North Korean communists and the Soviet Red Army were afraid of further revolts from the North Korean nationalists, students and intelligentsia. In order to prevent revolt, they attempted to use national leaders as secret agents and informers. Hence, on his release Sok Hon Ham was forced by the Red Army into the role of spy against his fellow citizens; reporting in detail on the movements of the Korean national and religious leaders. When he refused to follow these orders he was imprisoned once again in December 1946 for a month.46 Consequently, due to the conflicts between the communists and nationalists, not only Sok Hon Ham but several other nationalist figures were expelled from the Provisional People's Committee. North Korea then proceeded to implement a policy of Communization. Inevitably, after he was released from prison in January 1947, Sok Hon Ham decided to flee to South Korea. He arrived there at dawn on March 17th 1947.47 The number of Koreans who could not endure life under Communist authoritarianism and crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea rose sharply, totaling more than 800,000 by the end of 1947 (including Donggill Kim, Byung-mu Ahn and the writer's father). The brief period, 1945-1947, saw both chaos and a political vacuum between North and South Korea, making it possible for these people to escape.
But South Korea also was in the midst of a problematic situation. Since 1945, as noted, the USA occupied South Korea as a buffer in the Cold War. The political field of South Korea saw close attachments between the USA military officials and the former pro-Japanese Korean officials even after the liberation of Korea from Japan. This close affinity sprang from a shared anti-communism aimed at North Korea and the Soviet Union. Bruce Cumings showed how the irony of this unholy alliance struck even the Japanese-trained Korean officers themselves. On several occasions, Reamer Argo, an American military officer, asked Hyang-gun Yi, a pro-Japanese Korean, to help in building the Constabulary in the South. Yi often refused, mentioning, "How can those who served in the Japanese Army participate in building a Korean army?" Argo replied, "If experienced men like yourself do not participate, who will?"48 What is more, in 1946 when General Hodge, Commander of the US military government in Korea, interviewed Sok-won Kim, another pro-Japanese Korean, Hodge said this:
"The Constabulary is going well now, --- it will become the national army --- You have had your experience in the Japanese military, but now you must have a new beginning in a democratic military."49
With such a political background, as soon as Sok Hon Ham escaped from North Korea to "democratic" and pro- Japanese South Korea, he established the Sunday Religious Lectures. Using these lectures he presented his thoughts, and embarked on a period of prolific writing. As a result of these activities, he gained many sympathizers and became widely revered as an inspired teacher. In particular, his influence among the intelligentsia and students strengthened. Donggill Kim and Byung-mu Ahn both met him at this time, and fell under his influence. They maintained a close relationship with him until the end of his life.
However, at the same time, Sok Hon Ham was criticised by doctrinaire church leaders. They recognized his views both as being too Oriental and as too universalistic. As a result, church leaders labeled him a "heretic" and shunned him. Sok Hon Ham's Universalist views were influenced by
H. G. Wells' The Outline of History, and later consolidated by Teilhard de Chardin's book, The Phenomenon of Man. Teilhard constantly tried to create a synthesis between his Christian vision and the evolutionary perspectives of contemporary science. He saw the universe becoming increasingly "hominized", humanity increasingly converging or moving toward the "superior pole" of all evolution, which Teilhard calls the " Omega Point."50 Sok Hon Ham was particularly influenced by Teilhard's poly-dimensional view of the world and universe.51 It was an ironic coincidence that the originality of Teilhard's theories also brought reservations and objections from within the Roman Catholic Church and from the Jesuit order, of which he was a member.
Immediately following the Korean War (1953), Sok Hon Ham had an opportunity to meet British52 and American Quakers at Kunsan Friends' Service Unit working in the Provincial Hospital and for refugee's in South Korea. He was deeply interested by the humanitarian activities of these Western Quakers, and it was this attraction to their humanitarianism and pacifism that was to lead eventually to his becoming a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers) in 1967.
From 1956 Sok Hon Ham began to write his various thoughts on politics and religions in the monthly magazine, Sasang-gye (Thinking World). The venality and oppression produced by the ruling Liberal Party in South Korea under the rule of Christian president Syngman Rhee was intolerable. In particular, in 1958 South and North Korea became satellite states under the influence of the USA and the USSR, through which the Cold War was waged by proxy. At this time, Sok Hon Ham criticized Syngman Rhee's corrupt policies through the Sasang-gye magazine under the title of "People Should Think for a Living". We can examine what he actually wrote:
"It can be said that Koreans are freed from Japan, but there is no freeing in any actual feeling. A worse tragedy nowadays is that Koreans have two commanders [the USA and Russia) to serve instead of one [Japan] . Obedient to Japanese subjugation, at least families could remain together and people could come and go openly. Today parents and children are separated in the divided North and South. Where is liberation? Where is freedom? South Korea labels the North as Russia and China's puppet and to North Korea the South is the USA's puppet. There are only puppets and no country. Koreans do not have a country."53
Such criticisms were so "offensive" to the Syngman Rhee regime that they determined to imprison him. Consequently, in 1958, at the age of 57, he was imprisoned again for twenty days, ironically this time he had not been put in prison by the Japanese or the Soviets, but by his fellow countrymen. Therefore, he became a political "refugee" even in his own "liberated" and "democratic" country. But his only "crime" was his candid remarks in regard to the post-war disarray, corruption and escalating enmities between North and South Korea.
In 1960, the April Revolution led to the collapse of the First Republic, and through Syngman Rhee's resignation Koreans enjoyed a renewal of freedom, liberty, and optimism which had not existed since the liberation from Japan. But the following year in May 1961, the military coup of General Park took place. Although at the start of this coup, General Park had announced his junta to be a temporary administration, by 1963, he imposed an Amendment to the Constitution. He became president and remained in that position for 18 years until his assassination. During his regime, General Park brought strict censorship of the press and suppressed civil rights. Correspondingly, from 1961 onward Korean politics can be summarised as a series of military dictatorships with constant protests from its civilians. Sok Hon Ham straightforwardly criticized the illegitimacy of the military coup through the monthly magazine Sasang-gye and later through his magazine, Voice of the Ssi-Al (People). Below is one example of the critical writings of Sok Hon Ham during the military junta period:
"Dear Chunghee Park, Forgive me for not addressing you as the Chairman of the Supreme National Reconstruction54 or the General of the Army. I would rather address you as Dear Chunghee Park, a man with conscience and reasoning. You and your military colleagues have made many mistakes. First of all, the military coup was wrong. Probably your motive and aim to correct the national destiny was right, but the means were wrong. When the means are wrong, aims lose their meaning. You have no revolutionary theory. You rose up believing only in swords. You cannot gain the confidence of the people by military power alone. The biggest mistake of all is that you have not kept your declared promises given at the time of the coup. People were astonished when they heard that the military would govern for two years. However, now that the two years are coming to an end, instead of stepping down, you are thinking of a new political party and you are running for the President's seat, thus utterly disappointing the people."55
To help promote democracy, Sok Hon Ham established the monthly magazine, Voice of the Ssi-Al in 1970. This became the eye of the storm for democracy in Korea and for the enlightenment of the Korean people. Through the publication of this magazine, his followers were able to express widely their ideas on Korean society, becoming social leaders and leading figures of public thought in the nation. The Voice of the Ssi-Al sold out all over South Korea and provided optimism to a disappointed Korean people and their vision for democracy.
Furthermore, whenever possible, Sok Hon Ham spoke out fearlessly against General Park's dictatorial regime and its injustices through public speeches and writings. Side by side he established regular public study groups of the Bible, Quakerism, Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu. Through these teaching groups he emphasized the awareness of social justice in Protestantism, and the free spirit of humanity in the philosophy of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu.
In order to understand the range of Sok Hon Ham's appeal, it is necessary only to look at the editors of Voice of the Ssi-Al. Among them were the eminent Donggill Kim, former popular academic in history who has published over 64 books on the criticism of politics, religion and social issues, and is currently a statesman and Leader of the Opposition Party (Shin-min-tang). Pob Chong, a Buddhist monk, who published several books on his meditations, and had an established reputation among the various Korean intelligentsia. Yong-Chun Kim, a scientist and former-professor of Koryo (Korea) University, who had participated in the Club of Rome Conference as a representative scholar of natural science in Korea. He was one of Korea's experts in the field of organic chemistry. Kon-ho Song, who worked at the Tong-A Newspaper Company as a leading journalist and as chief editor until he was dismissed by General Park. Although he did not have any religious background, he had worked under Sok Hon Ham's leadership for the Voice of the Ssi-Al. There was also a lawyer, Tae-Yong Yi, who was the first female doctor of law in Korea. She wrote most of Sok Hon Ham's human rights declaration draft and was an enthusiastic Christian. The very different religious and non-religious peoples that Sok Hon Ham chose were welded together by his broad vision and inspiration.
While conducting the interviews for this thesis I was amazed by the wide spectrum of his followers. For example, when I met Dr.Ki-ryo Chang in Pusan, I felt he was a very traditional Presbyterian. Although, he has a respected reputation because of his charitable works, and is a very intelligent man, his mind was uncomplicated and as pure as a child's. He believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible. On the contrary, when I had interviews with Dr.Byung-mu Ahn, the founder of the Minjung theology56, I felt his views were remarkably progressive, in a certain way somewhat radical. Even today many Korean churches still do not accept Byung-Mu Ahn's innovative Minjung theology. Both these men are controversial figures; one most conservative, one most progressive. The above illustrates how widely polemic religious views were fused under the influence of Sok Hon Ham.
More remarkable is the impact of Sok Hon Ham on the very different political groups in Korea. When Sok Hon Ham died, the President of South Korea Tae-woo Roh, proposed a Public Funeral for him. Previously, this same president had asked Sok Hon Ham to be the Chief of the Seoul Peace Olympiad to represent the Korean people. Ideologically, the President Tae-woo Roh is right wing. On the other hand, as a striking radical-leftist, Rev.Ik-Hwan Mun, was also a well known admirer of Sok Hon Ham.
In 1989 under Tae-woo Roh's Presidency, Rev. Ik-Hwan Mun visited North Korea without the permission of the South Korean government, where he met the leader of North Korea, Kim II-Sung. On his return to South Korea, Rev. Mun was arrested and placed in prison. I regard the relationship between Rev.Mun and President Roh as two extremes. They stood for opposed political lines, but their differences melted when confronted by Sok Hon Ham's broadness. This reflects Sok Hon Ham's religious Universalism, embracing various religions, dissimilar peoples and extremely different political groups.
One can maintain that humankind cannot live without vision, Sok Hon Ham showed his vision to the downhearted Korean people during the 'dark age' of Korea's history. Sok Hon Ham was only briefly a politician in an established government as Minister of Education in P'yongyang. In an undemocratic country, political democracy is a fundamental precondition for the evolution of society, the economy, culture and the arts. Equally, without the freedom of the press, one cannot imagine the freedom of expression, or the freedom of speech. In this respect, Sok Hon Ham acted as a political activist, and was clearly a force for democracy in Korea in establishing free, forward-looking papers with liberal and thought-inspiring articles. That is why, 'during the 1970s and throughout the 1980s, he rose as a symbolic figure for the democratic movements in Korea. The Chief of the Han Kyou Re Newspaper company, Kon-ho Song, remembered Sok Hon Ham's fearless activity during the period of General Park's "reign of terror":
"At that time, no one dared speak or write anything against the dictatorial Chunghee Park's regime. No journalist, or professor, or any member of the intelligentsia dared to comment on the arbitrary power of General Park. Only Sok Hon Ham criticised Park's injustice and the illegitimacy of his regime. I still wonder, how Sok Hon Ham did that without any fear?"57
In 1976, the New York Times reported the following news:
"Leading Seoul Dissidents Ask Resignation of President Park. SEOUL, South Korea, March 2.sic58 A group of South Korea's most prominent political dissidents have issued a statement here asking the Government to rescind the emergency decree and restore all political freedoms that have been restricted under the 1972 Constitution. Signed and circulated by 12 political and religious figures, the statement asked that President Park Chung Hee resign and take responsibility for what they termed his dictatorial control. Among the signers were former President Yun Po Sun; Kim Dae Jung, the presidential candidate who ran against President park in 1971; and Ham Sok Hon, a civil rights leader."59
For this act, the seventy-five-year-old Sok Hon Ham received an eight-year prison sentence. However, due to pressure from the West on president Park's Government, he was placed instead under house arrest. Finally, in October 1979, Park was assassinated by his secretary, thereby bringing an end to 18 years of military dictatorship. Sok Hon Ham was once again released. In spite of that, within seven months a second military coup took place, this time led by General Doo-Hwan Chun. Sok Hon Ham was placed under house arrest again, and his magazine Voice of the Ssi-Al was shut down.
During the period of the battle for democracy in Korea, Sok Hon Ham was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice, in 1979 and 1985 by the American Friends Service Committee. In 1963 he received the First Wol-Nam Press Prize from Sasang-gye magazine, and in 1987 he also received the First In-Chon Press Prize from the Tong-A Newspaper Company. The latter was in recognition of the contribution from the Voice of the Ssi-Al to the freedom of the Press in Korea during the period of two military coups. A professor Po-Sok Chung argued that:
"Although Sok Hon Ham was not a professional journalist, during the era of the military dictatorships, he actively promoted the development of the freedom of the press in Korea as a freelance journalist."60
In 1988, due to massive demonstrations and protests, General Doo-Hwan Chun reluctantly resigned from the presidency. On the eve of the International Seoul Olympiad, Sok Hon Ham rose from his hospital bed to convene the Seoul Assembly for a peaceful Olympiad. As the Head of the Seoul Peace Olympiad he represented the Korean people. This organization drew up a declaration calling for world peace which was signed by more than six hundred prominent citizens, including Nobel Peace Prize winners and world leaders.61 Four months later, on February 4, 1989, he finished his journey of suffering at the Seoul University hospital.
Return to Table of Contents Go to "II. Historical and Philosophical Aspects of Taoism within China and Korea"
* [http://www2.gol.com/users/quakers/HSH_index.htm Ham Sok Hon Resource Page]
* [http://www2.gol.com/users/quakers/queen_of_suffering.htm Queen of Suffering - A Spiritual History of Korea]
* [http://www2.gol.com/users/quakers/interviews.htm Interviews with Teacher Ham]
Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.