Nation versus Family
Since 1969 Ham's wife had been stricken with paralysis and was frequently confined to her sickbed. This is hardly surprising when one considers Ham's stormy life after 1938: for more than 30 years Ham did not have a stable job, nor did he have any regular income but was arrested and imprisoned repeatedly. As a result, Ham could not properly support his wife and children financially. This meant that the bulk of the responsibility for rearing the children fell upon his wife. She was the person who had to bear the economic burden for their family and had to work for their daily bread. She was a mother of five children with an almost economically helpless husband. Ham may have led an essentially rich inner life but he lived in outward poverty. During the military dictatorship of Park, Ham even turned away the courier of Prime Minister Kim Jongp'il who brought to Ham some bags of rice for ch'usok (traditional harvest ceremony), seeing it as an unjustified largesse.
Ham's wife, as a traditional Korean wife, did accept Ham's decision to refuse such a largesse from Kim Jongp'il without complaint. Yet it seems to me that she must have been struggling both financially and psychologically. Ham makes reference to his wife sometimes having to support the family through peddling jobs while he was in prison or under arrest. Ham himself considered that the development of the Parkinson's Disease from which his wife ultimately died was links to the nervous stress which she had been under during her life. Nevertheless, she did not mind about herself and was given the nick name "Naya Mwo [I am OK.]" by family members, obeying her economically useless husband Ham without question. Thus one can argue that the case of Ham's wife paralleled that of Mahatma Gandhi's wife, Kasturba, and she shared Ham's life but not his views: "Most of Kasturba's life was spent trying to hold her family together and protect her four sons from their father's more hare-brained schemes."
In this regard, although Ham was 'religious' and aware of the socio-political conditions of his country, at the same time he can be seen as irresponsible and selfish as a husband and as the head of a family. It seems to me that choosing between the needs of his nation and those of his family was a dilemma for Ham, and he was not able to reconcile these two sets of needs. Ham seems to have valued his wife's devotion and been aware of his own shortcomings: "She was always faithful and devoted to me, although I was not a good family man." Yet he was unable to offer his family practical support.
Under the military regime in South Korea, most heads of a family collaborated or at least co-operated with the military dictators, some passively and some actively, for the sake of their families, if not for their own sakes. Ham was not prepared to compromise in this way. It is an irony that although Ham was deeply concerned about society and social reform, he only seems to have been able to pursue such concern by 'dropping out' from the society and family to which he belonged. While Ham's ideas and public activities brought about the improvement of his fellow Koreans' welfare, it appears to me that he was not able to match these achievements with care for his immediate family.
On 8 May 1978, while Ham was engaged in a public speech in Kwangju to promote democracy in Korea, his wife passed away as a result of her prolonged palsy. Ham could not be present at her deathbed. In giving himself to his people, Ham could see that he was taking himself away from his wife and children. Early dawn of the next day, Ham arrived at his house, where he saw the corpse of his wife to whom he has been married for 61 years. The prophet, in the reality of his home life, could be seen as destitute and contradictory. In this light Ham was a prophet without honour. It seems to me that if Ham had been a bachelor these predicaments and responsibilities as the head of a family would not have arisen. Similarly Ham had regretted his marriage. I once heard Ham say that: "If I were born again in this world I would not get married." But for Ham's generation in Korea, marriage was actually obligatory and he could not escape from his historical environment.
Earlier, at the time of his father's death, Ham was in prison under the Japanese authorities and could not even see the corpse of his father. With his mother and two children confined to North Korea, Ham was unable to see or hear from them from 1947 until the end of his life. Ham's tumultuous life reflected the tragedy of all Koreans.
But the political situation of South Korea did not allow Ham to grieve for his late wife. In June 1978, Ham was chosen as Chairman of the Coalition for Human Rights Movements in Korea (CHRMK). As Chairman of CHRMK, Ham was well equipped to meet Korea's national emergency, having the experience of a discerning prolific writer, a religious thinker, a civil rights leader, and the Chief editor of Voice of the People.
Ham increased the scope of CHRMK's operations: assisting the labourers' activity by exposing the violation of labourers' rights, and sending statements of protest to the industries office; raising funds for academics who were expelled for their democratic activities; and issuing sarcastic printed statements concerning the presidential voting carried on at the hand of the 'rubber-stamp' electoral college, the National Conference for Unification (NCU), under the Yusin Constitution on July 1978. Ham compared this 'election' result to voting in North Korea - both of them secured 99.9% 'consent'.
What is more, in early March 1979, Ham, Yun Poson and Kim Daejung, who had been set free from prison just three months earlier, announced the creation of the National Alliance for Democracy and Unification, while delivering a formal statement in the name of the Alliance. The statement asserted that national unification was 'the supreme goal' of the whole nation and that it had to be attained by a democratic government and by 'relying upon the people'. It also emphasised that economic development should be based on benefits for the entire populace, not just a privileged minority, and democracy should be administered through the people's power.
Because of these anti-Park activities, Ham was promptly arrested and interrogated. Opposition party leader, Kim Youngsam, was expelled from the National Assembly as well as being deprived of his position as Assemblyman. But this arrest and expulsion caused a political crisis; mass student demonstrations followed throughout South Korea. Nevertheless Park's Security Chief, Cha Chich'ol, advised that the regime be ready to massacre one or two million civilians, with tanks if necessary. Finally, in October 1979, Park and Cha Chich'ol were shot and killed by Kim Chaegyu (1926-1980), Director of the Korea Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), thereby bringing an end to 18 years of military dictatorship and the Yusin rule.
However, a month later, in the midst of political turmoil, Ham and 122 others were arrested again for taking part in a peaceful rally against martial law and indirect presidential elections. There are allegations that at least 20 of them were systematically beaten at the Army Security Command Headquarters, and Ham received a one year sentence. But the sentence for Ham was suspended within a couple of months and in due time Ham was released. As soon as he was released, Ham organised public lectures not only in Seoul but also in Taegu, Chonju, Pusan, Kwangju and even on Cheju Island. Ham was reputed to be an inspiring orator who captivated his audiences by entertaining them as well as enlightening them.
Meanwhile, on 16 April 1980, General Chun Doohwan named himself Acting-Director of the KCIA, despite a proviso in the governing constitution forbidding a military man from becoming director. By doing so, Chun practically though not officially, monopolised the military-political powers of South Korea. The acting President Ch'oe Kyuha and other cabinet members found themselves in impotent positions.
Chun's deed provoked abundant criticism, particularly among university students. There was a mass turnout of some 100,000 student demonstrators in Seoul alone, calling for an end to martial law. But it offered Chun the pretext he had been waiting for. In May 1980, a second military coup took place led by Chun. Chun massacred several hundred civilians in Kwangju, tightened martial law, closed down all South Korea's universities and dissolved the National Assembly by use of military tanks.
Entire cities were put under the complete control of the army, and hundreds of thousands of Koreans were placed either in prison or under house arrest, including Ham, Kim Donggill and Ahn Byungmu. In most instances their 'interrogations' were conducted under torture. On 27 October 1980, the National Assembly was succeeded by the 81-member Legislative Council for National Security (LCNS), whose members were chosen by General Chun himself. Entire political parties vanished; and 835 'chonghwa [purification]' acts were passed which affected practically all politicians, in particular Kim Daejung who was sentenced to capital punishment. World-wide protests brought about a mitigation of this ruling, and Kim Daejung was eventually forced out of South Korea to the United States. Chun said "there would be no place for professional politicians in the new Korea".
Ham's magazine, the Voice of the People, together with 171 other journals, was closed down by the Martial Law Enforcement Headquarters in July 1980. By November 14, the blueprint to change the control and output of the mass media or the "carnage of the mass media", was finalised.
Chun's regime was a successor to Park's Yusin precept, despite Chun's denial of his reign's connection with Yusin. Chun's rule matched that of Park. It was an autocratic unit dictated and maintained at the hands of the army.
Throughout the 1980s, despite his old age, Ham was vigorously active, teaching, travelling and lecturing throughout South Korea. However, due to extreme polarisation of the dissident movement, Ham gradually became not a popular leader especially among the radical dissident groups. Some radical dissident activists advocated the necessity of violence to overthrow the military regime. Although Ham was also an active promoter of a democratic government as opposed to a military regime, he totally opposed any kind of violence. Therefore, there was always a conflict between Ham and radical dissident activists.
In the meantime, the death by police torture of a university student in January 1987 further enraged anti-Chun students, civil rights groups and even middle class civilians. In June 1987 the month of great demonstrations began throughout South Korea: on 10 June, 400,000 people held demonstrations across South Korea, this number dramatically increased within a couple of weeks; on 18 June half a million, and by 26 June 1.4 million people held immense demonstrations all over South Korea.
Due to these massive demonstrations and protests, Chun was forced to give up his previous idea of abolishing the direct presidential election system. For South Korea 1987 proved to be a political landmark, one in which the citizens achieved more democratic rights. Subsequently, direct presidential elections took place on 16 December. But along with the rift between the two opposition leaders, the ruling party nominee, Roh Taewoo, won in the presidential election, gathering 35.9% of the whole ballot. Ham again found himself a maverick national leader, not welcomed either by the military and right-wing groups who saw him as an agitator, or by the militant civil rights activists and leftist groups who saw him as too moderate. Once more Ham became a lonely man caught between the polarisation and collision of conservative and revolutionary forces. It was at this time that Ham required hospital treatment and was diagnosed with cancer of the rectum.
However, despite his visible physical decay, as a non-politician and as a lay religious thinker, Ham was regarded by the South Korean Cabinet Members as the most popular national leader across all ideological boundaries, regardless of political or religious orientation. Therefore, in October 1988, on the eve of the International Seoul Olympiad, Ham was chosen by the South Korean Cabinet as the Head of the Seoul Peace Olympiad. This was hardly a surprising event, since Ham had pursued pacifism throughout his entire life. In spite of his physical weakness, Ham rose from his hospital bed to convene the Seoul Assembly for a peaceful Olympiad. As the Head of the Seoul Peace Olympiad Ham represented all the Korean people. This organisation 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. It was Ham's last 'service' for his country and fellow people.
However, even this act was criticised by radical activists as a "collaborating action on behalf of the Roh Taewoo regime". It seems a beacon does not give light to its own grounds, and the greatest virtue can never be understood in its own time. Ham's magnanimity was unknown or regarded as an outlandish act by many of his contemporaries and even today is difficult to comprehend for some people. Four months later, on February 4, 1989, Ham ended his journey of suffering at the Seoul National University hospital.
Chapter 6: The Legacy of Ham Sokhon Table of Contents Home Page