The Legacy of Ham Sokhon
The Aim of this Chapter
As an American novelist, William Faulkner (1897-1962), once pointed out, "The past is never dead. It's not even past". And as a Russian writer, Yuri Trifonov (1925-1981) has noted, "History is not simply something that was. History is with us and in us". In this light, it seems to me that the most important aspect of history is what a man leaves behind for posterity. In this chapter I will look into the legacy that Ham may have left to today's Korea. Ham left three main legacies for posterity: Firstly, his main disciples, Kim Donggill and Ahn Byungmu. Secondly, his activities as a Voice of deprived Korean people when the mass of Koreans had lost their rights, dignity, and a voice for themselves. Thirdly, his philosophical legacy of the intersection of Western Christianity with East Asian philosophies in the light of his view on religious pluralism. I will examine the socio-political activities of Kim and Ahn, then look at the evolution of democracy in South Korea with reference to the Bible, and finally examine Ham's merging of Western Christianity with East Asian philosophies.
6.1. Kim Donggill and Ahn Byungmu
Both Kim and Ahn in their interviews with me in 1992 and 1993 respectively pointed out that the legacy Ham left to Korea was his life and his thought, the same things that Socrates left to Plato, and which inspired Plato to write the Apologia Sokratous and 'create' philosophy. In the same way, it seems that Ham's life and thought have also borne fruit in the public activities of Kim and the Minjung theology of Ahn. Both Kim and Ahn are a tribute to Ham's life and thought.
Both Kim and Ahn were deeply inspired by Ham's philosophical and religious thought as well as his personal magnetism and humanity, and were prepared to risk their lives under his influence. As followers of Ham, Kim and Ahn have not only been important figures in the democratisation of South Korea, but have also been a great inspiration for the mass of Korean people. In fact, among today's younger generation in Korea, Ham is not as well known as Kim and Ahn. It is therefore important to consider what influence Kim and Ahn received from Ham and how it affected their lives.
Kim and His Public Activities
Kim Donggill (1928- ) studied English and American literature at Yonsei University in Seoul. Kim first met Ham in the summer of 1948. At this time Kim had already read Ham's writings on Korean history through the magazine, Songso Choson. Kim, as the first elected President of the Students Union, and of the Kidok Haksaeng- hoe [Christian Union] at Yonsei University, invited Ham to give a lecture to the students. There was an instant rapport between Kim and Ham, and Kim was deeply impressed by Ham, while Ham recalled Kim in this meeting as an "unforgettable marvellous man". From that time Kim maintained a close relationship with Ham; Kim as a disciple of Ham, and Ham as Kim's mentor.
After graduation from Yonsei University, Kim had an opportunity to study further in the United States taking a BA in history at Evansville College in Evansville, and then earning his MA in history and PhD in history at Indiana University and Boston University in Boston, Mass. respectively. Kim's change in field from literature to history was due to Ham's philosophical influence on him as an 'historian'.
Kim then taught history for 20 years at Yonsei University until he was dismissed by Park's regime. Kim had been a respected professor and the Dean of Students at Yonsei University, but in April 1974, after his public lecture on history along with contemporary Korea's affairs at the Taesong Building, Kim was arrested, and charged with "helping the students conspire to organise a nation-wide protest, and trying to assemble students at the City Hall Plaza to seize main government buildings with the plan of overthrowing the Park regime and establishing Communist rule." Although he was completely cleared of this charge several years later when it was revealed as part of Park's conspiracy against political dissidents, the fact that the incident took place indicates that, like Ham, Kim had broad views on socio-political reform. In fact, Kim was one of the most outspoken critics of Park's dictatorial measures in the 1970s, although he was not a Communist by any means. Kim was initially sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment and deprived of his civil rights. This event parallels the occasion in 1958 when Ham was imprisoned on the charge of "Communist tendencies" under the National Security Law.
Kim's passion for Ham and democracy continued even in prison and, like Ham in 1942, Kim made the prison his 'university'. As well as studying himself, Kim opened a free 'prison university' in his cell and encouraged both prisoners and prison officers, by giving lectures on history, the Bible and English-American literature, enlivening them with his own special brand of humour. As a result of his 'lectures' in the prison, Kim was given the nickname the "First President of Prison University" at Sodaemun Prison.
For some unspecified reason Kim was released within one year of receiving his sentence. Though released, Kim still remained 'guilty' as indicted and could be arrested again whenever Park wanted him to be. Just outside the entrance of the prison, where Kim could have spent 15 years of his life, he declared "I would be ready to return to this prison for continuing my struggle for Democracy." Jailed academics like Kim were not taken back by their universities until after the death of Park. Kim's preparedness to go to prison for the sake of democracy echoes Ham's 'ethos' of sacrificing his career for the democratisation of Korea.
After his release from prison, Kim devoted his time and energy to writing books and giving public lectures throughout South Korea. These activities have resulted in him being given two more nicknames, that of a 'Messenger of Love', and a 'Marathon Runner for Freedom'. In the early 1970s, when Ham established the Voice of the People, Kim worked as one of the main editors.
In 1980, during the brief Indian summer in Korea's political climate, Kim was reinstated at Yonsei University as an academic Vice-President. In March 1980, it was assumed that most South Koreans sympathised with the aims of student demonstrators for swift constitutional changes, and students brought about additional street upheavals, expecting the government answer their appeals for a certain timetable of democratic reform and direct elections for the Presidency and the National Assembly. Nevertheless, there were many who recognised that the increasing agitation, apparently leading to further social turbulence, might cause the army to step into executive matters and withdraw jurisdiction from the acting President Ch'oe Kyuha, leaving unfulfilled the government's pledges of transformation in the direction of civil government. Indeed certain dissidents advised the students to proceed gradually, whilst agreeing with their goals to liberalise campus environments and the country's political framework. In the case of Yonsei University, it was only Kim who could stand up to and directly address agitated student demonstrators, advocating the way of non-violence: "We should not provide an excuse for the military to come in."
Unfortunately it was not possible to calm the students' agitation. Student demonstrations flared up in the main streets of Seoul. General Chun's military coup was soon to follow, and Chun became presidential dictator. In the process, Chun arrested many democratic and civil rights leaders, including both Kim and Ham. Kim was imprisoned once more for two months.
In 1984 Kim was again reinstated at Yonsei University as a history professor and he gave ever popular academic lectures there. The following year, the Choson Ilbo reported Kim's lectures in this manner: "2,300 students come crowding in to professor Kim Donggill's history lectures. Throughout the history of Korea's universities, a new record was made in a single academic course. Kim mixed his history lectures with criticism of Korea's socio-political reality." Kim's lectures set a new record for a single academic course in the Guinness Book of World Records in 1985.
In 1991, Kim resigned from Yonsei University and entered politics. Within a year Kim achieved a landslide victory and gained a seat in the National Assembly. Due to his immense popularity he immediately became Vice-President of the United People's Party (Kungmin-dang). However, Kim soon became disillusioned with the corruption of Korean politics and the difficulty of bringing about real reform, and lost his popularity due to his achievements not matching the people's high expectations. Kim retired from politics in May 1996 and since then has dedicated his whole time and energy to writing and public lecturing throughout South Korea. Kim has published over 80 books to date and given over 5,000 public lectures throughout the whole of South Korea.
During his interview with me, Kim testified to Ham's influence on him: "I cannot imagine my life and thought today without Ham's influence. Because of Ham, I have learnt tolerance toward other religions, and broader views on Korean politics, and history." Kim had previously regarded Korean Christianity as narrow and intolerant and he readily embraced Ham's more magnanimous and broad-minded form of Christianity. It was Ham too who inspired Kim to be a historian with a political awareness. As Ham did, Kim viewed the history of humanity as not a progression merely of culture but also of moral growth, and saw human advancement not just as evolution but as moral and spiritual improvement. Most of all, Kim absorbed from Ham the spirit of democracy and freedom. Hence, like Ham, Kim worked for the democratisation of South Korea during the three decades of military rule.
Kim's views and outlook were undoubtedly shaped by Ham's philosophical influence. However, it seems to me that there is also an essential difference in character between the two men, in that while Ham was shy and retiring and only assumed leadership under persuasion and 'pressure', Kim is bolder, more positively active, and has shown natural leadership qualities from his Presidency of the Yonsei Students Union to his direct involvement in politics and quite phenomenal output in terms of writing and lecturing. The legacy Kim received from Ham was not a specific set doctrine but a way of living as a liberal democratic spirit, embracing differences of religious view and political opinion. Kim has been able to turn the thought and spirit which he absorbed from Ham to powerful effect in his vigorous public activities. I consider Kim to be the living legacy of Ham in today's Korea.
Ahn and Minjung Theology Table of Contents