“Ham Sok Hon: Voice of the People and Pioneer of Religious Pluralism in Twentieth Century Korea; Biography of a Korean Quaker”* A Review

Reviewed by Chuck Fager

Reprinted from Quaker Theology #5, Autumn 2001

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 “national 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 pages 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 became President of South Korea in 1998 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.

    Kim Sung Soo does an admirable job of filling in the cultural and spiritual context in which Ham Sok Hon lived and worked. Korea was (and apparently is) a unique religious locale in Asia, where Protestant missionaries had unprecedented success. Yet the influence of an ancient, highly stratified and patriarchal version of Confucianism was also pervasive and, Kim argues, managed to absorb much of Korean Christianity into its authoritarian ethos.

    But alongside these strains there persisted a counterstream of Taoism, with an emphasis on individuality which made room for much more individual liberty and seeking. Ham combined study of this Taoist stream with both Christianity and the Hindu thought which Gandhi drew on for his struggle in India. Indeed, Ham translated the Bhagavad-Gita into Korean, and published a biography of Gandhi as well.

    With these influences, if Ham were American or British his turning to Quakerism would be pretty easy to understand. But the actual encounter came under very different circumstances. In 1960, by Ham’s own testimony, he “committed a sin which was totally indefensible.” Although no details are disclosed here, this infraction was evidently a love affair. Kim interviewed the woman in question, who soon afterward left Korea for the U.S., where she remained until after Ham’s death. The liaison evidently caused a scandal and many of Ham’s former students abandoned him.

    Ham wrote that he came to Friends in the aftermath of this misdeed. “It was not that I had studied about the Quakers and had decided to become one. Rather, as a man with no place to go, and as a drowning man clutching at even a piece of straw, I attended one of the [Quaker] meetings.” A small group of Koreans and Western expatriates had been holding worship in Seoul since 1958. Kim says that they “accepted Ham without condemnation as their ‘friend’ when he was longing for a friend.”

    But if a non-judgmental welcome was what first drew him to Quakers, Ham soon found theological resonance there as well. In Kim’s telling, Ham’s own religious thinking had evolved far from his early enthusiasm for missionary Christianity. His interest in Asian religions and Gandhi combined with a reaction against the way he saw the largest South Korean Christian groups being co-opted and neutralized by repressive governments. In addition, these groups were also absorbing varieties of fundamentalist theology being exported by factions within their American sponsor denominations, and Ham had no truck with such stuff. Hence he had already been pronounced a “heretic” by many of these bodies, even before his “fall” in 1960.

    Indeed, Ham was steadily becoming what American Quakers would call a “universalist” in his religious thought. As he once put it, “From the Supreme Being’s prospect there is only one way, yet from human beings’ prospect there are limitless ways. God is too big to be grasped in one religion.” Or, more personally, he compared himself to the woman at the well Jesus spoke to in John 4: “I am the Samaritan woman. I have five masters: Native religion [shamanism], Confucianism, Buddhism and the Non-Church Movement, but nothing can be master of my spirit. Now, I am a Quaker, but none will be master of my spirit.”

    Kim’s account of the evolution of Ham’s thought is full and fascinating, but difficult for a Westerner like this reviewer to evaluate fairly. In this country, we often hear the complaint that “universalist” Quakers think of religion as like a supermarket shelf, from which they pluck a can of this and a bag of that according to their changing whims.

    Whatever the truth of such jibes in this culture (not much, in my view), they are both applicable and absurd in Ham’s case: yes, he admittedly drew from a wide range of traditions; but this was hardly the result of consumerist fancies. Rather, it was the outcome of eighty years of study and struggle. Ham’s life – prison record – shows that seeking to forge a spiritual identity from the clash of cultures and faiths in his homeland was not some self-indulgent lark, but a life-and-death matter. If nothing else, this should warrant a respectful hearing of where he came out and how he got there.

    I am very grateful to Kim Sung Soo for undertaking to let American and English readers have the chance to give Ham this wider hearing. While Kim’s grasp of the vagaries of English prose is not always complete, his narrative nonetheless flows smoothly and coherently. The absence of an index is a disappointment, one of few here.

    Ham Sok Hon was a name familiar to many western Quakers of a generation older than mine; but with distance, language and time, our awareness had faded. Kim’s biography has brought Ham back to us, and to others, and we are definitely the richer for it.

NOTE: copies of this book are hard to find; check on used books sites.

A profile of Ham Sok Hon is online at: http://www.satyagrahafoundation.org/the-legacy-of-ham-sok-hon-the-korean-gandhi/


*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.

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