Reviewed by Chuck Fager
Early in the morning of Second Month 4, 1989, Kim Sung Soo learned that Ham Sok Hon had died. “When I looked at him in his coffin,” Kim writes, “I felt it was as if a part of myself had died. Faced with his death my mind began to wander through a labyrinth of reflections: Ham’s life, his death, and my own life. . . . “
A few hours later, Kim quit his job as an engineer for the Korean National Railway. Soon he began graduate work in history and East Asian studies, which took him to England and the University of Essex. While his studies ranged widely, they had one main focus: Ham Sok Hon. His B.A. thesis considered Ham and democracy in Korea; his M.A. essay examined Ham’s melding of Taoism and Quakerism; and his doctoral dissertation brought these together with a detailed biography.
Why was Kim so taken with Ham? He had first heard Ham speak in 1979, at one of the innumerable lectures Ham gave throughout much of his career. From that time, Kim writes, Ham “was a source of constant and lasting inspiration to me at every moment of my life . . . .” Thus this book, while a methodical piece of scholarship, is also and at heart a personal spiritual testament.
Kim is evidently not alone in his admiration of Ham Sok Hon. The South Korean government has designated Ham as a “na-tional cultural figure” and took formal note of the centennial of his birth in the spring of 2001. This book is also part of that centennial observance. There is a Ham Sok Hon Memorial Foundation, and – that quintessential mark of twenty-first century distinction–several sites on the World Wide Web are devoted to him and his work.
This continuing interest in Ham is not easy to account for. Ham, notes Kim, “was a total failure in the worldly sense.” He never had a steady job for more than a few years; he wasn’t a good organizer, and did not have much in the way of a positive political program. He left his family in poverty, to be supported by his longsuffering wife.
Furthermore, the government recognition is especially noteworthy because during later his life Ham had been imprisoned by a succession of South Korean dictators. Before that, he had been jailed by the North Korean Communists. And before that, he was locked up by Korea’s Japanese overlords.
These imprisonments varied widely in circumstances, but had a common theme, which begins to point toward Ham’s appeal: he believed in freedom from tyranny of whatever sort; and acted on his belief. In his lifetime, he did not need to be a systematic political thinker for such a conviction to have concrete meaning, for his homeland faced a plethora of oppressors.
First was the Japanese empire, which attempted nothing less than the obliteration of Korean identity and culture; then, after the Japanese expulsion in World War Two, Kim Il Sung installed a ruthless communist regime in Ham’s native north of the country. But when Ham, like so many others, fled to the South to escape Marxist oppression, he collided with a series of neo-fascist southern dictators, under the complaisant patronage of the United States. Waving the banner of anti-communism, these rulers’ repression scarcely knew any bounds.
With this sad succession as both his personal and national history, it is hardly surprising that one of Ham’s major works about Korea refers to it as the Queen of Suffering. But the rest of the title gives us another clue to him; it is: A Spiritual History of Korea. One reason Ham was a “failure” in conventional political terms was because his personal concern was not with gaining worldly power, but in understanding and illuminating its spiritual and religious sources and the conflicts underlying it.
Ham Sok Hon was, in short, a religious seeker, a student, and a teacher. The freedom he sought was only incidentally political. More basically, it was simply the necessary condition for the kind of pilgrimage toward understanding that was much of his life’s work. Yet paradoxically, in pursuit of this essentially inner freedom, and despite his lack of worldly ambitions, Ham found himself obliged to clash outwardly and repeatedly with the various political systems under which he and Korea suffered through most of his life.
Perhaps this helps account for Ham’s appeal, not only to Kim Sung Soo but to many other Koreans: a key theme of Ham’s story as it unfolds here is that each of the different forms of despotism he faced wanted not only to control his outward behavior, but his inner life as well: the Japanese tried to erase his whole identity, along with Korean history and civilization; Kim Il Sung’s cadres imposed a rigid Stalinist cult of personality mixed with materialist dogmas; and in the South, a succession of dictators mouthed the phrases of Western constitutionalism and Christianity while censoring and repressing even the mildest forms of dissent.
No wonder an essentially solitary spiritual pilgrimage like Ham’s, because it was carried out in public view, was repeatedly seen as posing some kind of grave political threat to these authorities. Yet while Ham was essentially a lone figure, his explorations had for many Koreans an emblematic character: in him they saw Korea struggling to regain its own identity and find its authentic voice.
Thus the lectures he gave inspired many other dissidents who did have political skills and ambitions; the journals he published, while limited in circulation and often suppressed, shaped the thinking of many who held more formal positions in universities and the press. (One of the dissidents he affected was Kim Dae Jung, who is now President of Korea after winning the first free election there. This change of government no doubt has much to do with the official attention now being given to Ham’s life.)
The course of Ham’s spiritual path is both idiosyncratic and in some sense typical. He was raised with considerable Christian influence at a time when Western missionaries were seen as a progressive alternative to Japanese imperialism. He later studied in Japan, preparing to become a teacher back home. But both his theology and his career plans went awry as he moved away from missionary orthodoxy toward something called the “Non-Church” movement, and soon the school he ran was shut down by the Japanese. Thereafter he studied, wrote, lectured, and repeatedly protested for more freedom for himself and the Korean people.
*Ham Sok Hon: Voice of the People and Pioneer of Religious Pluralism in Twentieth Century Korea; Biography of a Korean Quaker. By Kim Sung Soo. Seoul: Samin Books, 2001. 360 pp, $20.00.