Ham Sokhon in 'Liberated' Korea (1945-1961)
The Aim of this Chapter
In this chapter I will examine Ham's life in the post-Second World War era from 1945 up to 1961: including the epoch of the Russo-American military regimes in the two Koreas; and the rise and fall of the First and Second Republics in South Korea. At the end of the Second World War, Ham was in north Korea as a Christian nationalist. But soon, Ham found himself imprisoned by the Soviet Red Army. Eventually Ham fled to south Korea. But even in the south, he found himself imprisoned again, this time by neither the Japanese nor the Russians, but by his own fellow Koreans. Is the prophet never welcome in his own land?
4.1. After Liberation and as Head of Education (1945-1947)
An oppressed nation during the Second World War, Korea had become an 'artificial barrier' marking the battle line in the Cold War: The Korean nation was divided by the Allied Forces, supposedly on a temporary basis. South Korea came under the control of the United States and north Korea under the control of the Soviet Union. Korean society in 1945 was a maelstrom of old and new classes, political groups, and left and right ideologies. The conflict between the Western democratic model and the Soviet Communistic model was also a cause of internal antagonism within the two Koreas. There was further tension due to the sense that although in theory the collapse of Japanese rule offered the hope of securing an autonomous republic, in fact Japanese influence was still strong among the Korean landlords or ruling classes. The way forward was unclear.
At the time of liberation, the strongest group in north Korea were the Christian nationalists, led by a prominent national leader, Cho Mansik. But when the Soviet Army arrived in P'yongyang, the major city of north Korea, the balance of power moved swiftly from the Christians to the Communists. The Soviet armed forces set foot in northern Korea, which bordered on the Soviet Union, on 12 August. By 24 August the Red Army had occupied P'yongyang and established their military Headquarters. Hereafter Christians once again became a target, but this time of the Soviet and north Korean Communists.
Korean Christians were the largest surviving organised group of any kind, especially in north Korea. Although the number of Christians in the general population of the whole of Korea was just 2% in 1945, Christians were numerous and influential notably in P'yongyang, and had extensive connections with American missionaries. Christians in P'yongyang desired the unification of Korea under the guidance of the United States, along with an American-model democratic structure of government, whereas the Soviet-motivated north Korean Communists desired one Korea under Communist control. American sources also 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.
The Russian Army brought back to north Korea some 30,000 Koreans who had been in exile in the Soviet Union. The instantaneous control by the Soviets of the terrain above the 38th parallel was also supported by the leftists who had been particularly suppressed under the Japanese. However, rightists and nationalists had little influence under the new Communist rule. Nationalist leaders had no establishment to support them and the rightists lacked any idea of political solidarity, whereas the Russian-backed Communist Party operated much more efficiently by utilising doctrine, effective rules, and the appeal of a goal as an organisational adhesive.
Even though when Korea was liberated, Ham was still a farmer, he found himself nevertheless in a position of leadership nationally, at least within north Korea. Ham's own standpoint, on 'becoming a national leader' was an unexpected one. As he pointed out: "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." Ham's prison 'career' and his refusal to take a Japanese name throughout the colonial period had led the people to see him as a national leader.
In a way this kind of result was not unexpected as throughout the Japanese domination, generally speaking, Christians were more enthusiastic and exemplary nationalists than other Koreans. Christians had received a more modern education than their fellows in society. They had been forerunners of socio-political improvements. Also they had been cultural, educational and uplifting guides, regardless of the reality that their constituency was predominantly the underprivileged and the lower classes.
On the other hand, the Soviet Union, having made a blueprint to impose their dominance in north Korea, initiated organised suppression, and eradicated Christian nationalists. The struggle started because the leading political party was created by Christians. Cho Mansik was backed by many Christians who showed leadership to the north Korean people. Cho created a political party, the Choson Minju Dang [Choson Democratic Party], but this was immediately infiltrated by the Communist Party. At the same time, the Soviet Army had expelled the Japanese and their Korean clerks, dismantled the existing political system, and turned over day-to-day administration to the province and lower-level people's committee structure. Eventually whole socio-political groups were reorganised under the gaze of Soviet military control into a single united party.
To communise north Korea under the volition of all north Koreans, the Soviet military authority used all their influence on nationalist leaders to join forces with them. Using those who had been prominent in the independence movement they consigned to them governmental functions under the supervision of the Soviet armed forces. Eventually Cho Mansik was appointed as Adviser and Ham was chosen as Head of Education by the Soviet in the Interim People's Committee of P'yongan Province..
Ham thought that his religious impartiality among nationalists in P'yongan province had led him to be appointed Head of Education, over and above other nationalist leaders. Initially Ham refused to take any official post for the Interim Committee, considering himself as a "not suitable man for politics". Also Ham considered that to retain any official post was not in keeping with his nature and character. Nonetheless, due to the massive pressure from the people in P'yongan province, he reluctantly accepted the post as being "inescapable in the interest of maintaining social order in that critical time of political turmoil." But as soon as Ham attended the Celebration Meeting for the Independence of Korea in P'yongyang, he regretted his decision to accept the official post.
Meanwhile the Russians did not anticipate that the nationalist members led by Cho Mansik and Ham would be so uncompromising against Soviet overtures. The Soviet authorities hastened to communise north Korea under the menace of guns and violence. At the same time, the Russian Army plundered the shops in towns, looted civilians' belongings, and even raped Korean women. Besides, most of the leaders of the group in north Korea who co-operated with Cho Mansik, were soon killed at the hands of the north Korean Communists - within the first six weeks following liberation. But this act was condoned by the Soviet authorities.
In the midst of the political slaughter, Kim Ilsung, who entered P'yongyang in the uniform of a major of the Red Army, was presented to the people as a national 'hero' on October 14, 1945. Kim promptly became the First Secretary of the 4,530-member North Korean Bureau of the Korean Communist Party. Kim, with the backing of the Soviets, adopted procedures to form enhanced regional Communist parties. But this caused a series of bloody conflicts between the nationalists and the Communists. On 23 November 1945 the situation was appalling, the nationalists and Communists clashed; the Sinuiju Students' Uprising took place as a result of the polarisation of the north Korean political situation. Anti-Communist revolt exploded, 5,000 nationalists protesting against the Soviet backed Communist forces. In one particularly bloody incident, north Korean Communist troops fired on a crowd of nationalist student protesters. As a result, 23 nationalists died, another 27 people were seriously injured and more than 80 were arrested by the Soviet and the Communist forces.
Consequently although more anti-Communist students, factory labourers and other young Koreans took up weapons against the Communist forces it brought about even more deaths; over 1,000 people died. Kim Ilsung personally visited Sinuiju, initially seeking to mend rifts between Communists and Christian nationalists. However, differences between Communists and Christian nationalists proved too great and the moderate and Christian nationalists were soon attacked by Kim Ilsung and the Communist forces. Continually, a bewildering confusion of discordant voices prevailed over north Korea. Between the late autumn of 1945 and March 1946, the Korean Communists, backed by the Soviet Union, dealt fiercely with the nationalists and whoever confronted them. Petty insurrections and revolts of anti-Communist Koreans took place later, yet every time, the Soviets and the Korean Communists put down all opponents by killing hundreds. The Soviets proclaimed martial law.
Eventually the time arrived for Ham's turn to be purged. Although Ham was not a direct leader of the student revolt nor of any other anti-Communist insurrections, his position as Head of Education and his standing as a Christian nationalist, meant he was held responsible. Being a Christian meant to the Communists the possibility of pro-American inclination, particularly considering American missionaries had been a channel in the Korean Christian movement. Ham was consequently arrested by the north Korean Communists and was beaten into unconsciousness at his arrest. Ham survived but found himself a prisoner under north Korean Communists who were themselves under Russian authority. Moreover the Communists confiscated Ham's house and most of his belongings. This meant Ham's aged mother, wife and seven children, found themselves poverty stricken. Life was hard for Ham and his family. In fact, it may have seemed not life, rather a struggle to survive.
In the prison, Ham tried to maintain his imperturbability in spite of overwhelming despondency. Ham asked himself: "Korea is liberated but why am I still in prison? Where is Korea going?" There was no answer but silence as Ham wept yet remained serene. In order to heal and calm his shattered heart Ham began to write various poems whilst in the prison cell. To avoid the eyes of the prison officers, Ham deliberately expressed his suppressed emotions and feelings through metaphysical language, poems, rather than essays. Inevitably, for the first time in his life Ham become a 'poet'.
A collection of his poems from this period was published in 1953, with the title Sup'yongson Nomo [Beyond the Horizon]. Let me review one of his poems: in this poem Ham described the characteristic of God as an immovable mountain;
I blamed you.
When I asked you, you kept silent
Thus I blamed you.
But I realised your answer is 'silence'.
I sneered at you.
When I touched you, you didn't move
Thus I sneered at you.
But I realised your movement is 'immobility'.
I doubted you.
When I sat on your lap, you didn't embrace me
Thus I doubted you.
But I realised your embrace is 'let me be'.
Let me be like you!
Let me sit face to face with you!
Let me lie down within you!
Looking up to the silent heaven and mountains, perhaps Ham comprehended the nature of God as a transcendental as well as a neutral being in human affairs: just as heaven provides light and rain for all beings, whether good or evil, in Ham's view God's nature was neutral and impartial.
On 17 December, 1945 Kim Ilsung became head of the Korean communist party, and within two months, was Chairman of the North Korean Interim People's Committee. As a result of the incessant conflict between the Communists and nationalists, not only Ham but several other nationalist figures were expelled from the Interim People's Committee. Kim Ilsung intrigued to get rid of both the Christian leaders and the nationalists. By January 1946, the nationalists were completely under the control of the Communists, and most members of the Choson Democratic Party fled to south Korea. Two months later, on 13 March, 1946 an anti-Communist students uprising took place in Hamhung, but it was brutally crushed by Communist troops. North Korea then proceeded to implement a policy of communisation, while Kim Ilsung fortified his hegemony with the forceful support of the Soviets.
Early in 1946 the Soviet authorities had established a 20,000-man police and military unit, and in August 1946 the North Korean Army was set up. But still the north Korean Communists and the Soviets were afraid of further revolts from the nationalists, students and intelligentsia. In order to prevent revolt, they attempted to use moderate nationalist leaders as secret agents and informers. Hence on his release, after two months imprisonment, the Red Army ordered Ham to be a spy against his fellow nationalists. The Red Army ordered monthly reports from Ham containing details of the movements and activities of the Korean Christian-nationalists. When Ham refused to follow these orders he was imprisoned once again by the Russian authorities on Christmas Eve 1946. Only a month later, in January 1947 Ham was released, but the Communists still continuously demanded 'spy activities' from Ham. But, Ham could not betray his fellow Koreans to save his neck.
Therefore, as soon as he was released from prison, Ham decided to flee to south Korea. On February 26, 1947 Ham left his hometown leaving his aged mother and family behind, not knowing whether he would be able to return to his hometown again. Later on, in 1948 in south Korea, Ham was joined by his wife and five of his children. In south Korea, Ham's family made a bare living through farming at Oryu-dong, on the outskirts of Seoul. But Ham's aged mother, eldest son and daughter failed to escape from north Korea. From that time until his death Ham neither saw nor heard from them again.
1947 was a year of tragedy for the north Korean Christians. The Principal of P'yongyang Presbyterian Seminary, Kim Injun, and prominent Christian leader, Yi Chongsim (1901-1947), were imprisoned by the Soviet Army, dying in prison after brutal torture. Ham himself narrowly escaped death. North Korea, in particular P'yongyang, was at one time a city where there were over 100 Christian churches and the largest group of Protestant missionaries in any city of Asia. Under Russian occupation many Korean Christians escaped to south Korea. Those that stayed were subjected to manipulation and indoctrination or even put to death.
Many of Koreans who could not endure life under Communist totalitarianism crossed the 38th parallel into south Korea between 1945-1947, with both chaos and a political vacuum between north and south Korea making it possible for these people to escape. In three years, 1945-8, without major opponents and with Russian guns, Kim Ilsung attained what Stalin took seventeen years to achieve in the Soviet Union, that is he became leader of both party and state. By September 1948 the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) was established.
4.2. 'Liberal' South Korea and 'Crying in the Wilderness' (1947-1961) Table of Contents