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Ham Sok-hon Fought Against Injustice, Corruption

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2009. 7. 3.

Ham Sok-hon Fought Against Injustice, Corruption
By Kim Sung-soo
The Korea Times
March 12, 2006

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Late Ham Sok-hon

Ham Sok-hon lived a life of continuous suffering and poverty due to injustice, but remained a soft and gentle person free from anger or resentment until the day he died.

Immoral and corrupt regimes continually tempted him with great riches and powerful government posts, but his answer was always "No." "Babosae," meaning albatross, was his pen name. Ham was a man who rejected the temptations of corruption and injustice during his lifetime.

Ham Sok-Hon (1901-1989) lived and died in the 20th century, when state power trampled on human dignity domestically and strong nations invaded and tormented weak nations internationally.

The nation marks the 105th anniversary of his birth today.

Ham was born in North Korea. His father was a renowned doctor of Oriental medicine which made him relatively well off compared to others of the time.

He was one of the few that had the privilege of receiving a modern education. In 1916, Ham entered Pyongyang State High School, one of the top-notch schools on the Korean Peninsula.

If he had chosen to stay in school and remain submissive to the Japanese colonial regime, Ham would have been guaranteed a high level of worldly success and material riches for a Korean living under Japanese colonial rule.

However, at the age of 18, Ham willingly abandoned the road to the "promised land" or "milk and honey" by joining the March 1 Independent Movement against Japanese colonial rule as a student activist.

As was the case with students involved in demonstrations in the 1970s and 1980s in South Korea, Ham was expelled from school for taking part in the March 1 movement demonstrations and later refused to be reinstated.

He was often called a "hick country girl" for being so shy and timid, but in front of the Japanese bayonets and swords he did not fear death and was brave enough to shout "Long Live the Independence of Korea." No one is more intimidating than "someone who has decided on death."

It is not easy to give up a guaranteed road to comfort for a muddy one, but Ham willingly chose to take the road of suffering. He had many opportunities to make a name for himself during his lifetime.

In 1923 Ham went to Tokyo to study, which was rare for a young Korean at that time, and then in 1928 he returned home after finishing his studies at the Tokyo Teachers’ College.

For 10 years after his return, Ham taught history at his old school, Osan High School, and he remained a Korean intellectual refusing to cooperate with Japanese imperialism. If he had only hung his head low and cooperated with the Japanese colonial system, he would have been guaranteed a "brilliant" future.

During his 10 years as a schoolteacher, Ham upheld his opposition to Japanese colonial rule. However, while he remained a common teacher, some of his "quick-witted" colleagues submitted themselves to Japanese imperialism and took the highway to "riches" and "success" by taking up positions as educational administrators or officials.

Ham was imprisoned four times from 1923 to 1945 for his anti-Japanese colonialism activities such as writing and teaching. The space on this page is not large enough to describe the suffering Ham’s family had to endure when he was in prison. He fathered two boys and five girls, but they had to live without seeing their father.

When Korea was liberated from Japan in 1945, Ham was a farmer carrying fertilizer on his back. However, with the joy of liberation, an opportunity to gain riches and worldly success came to Ham once again when he was appointed to a leading position (head of education) in North Korea together with Cho Man-sik, adviser to the North Korean interim government.

Unfortunately the joy of liberation was only brief. Ham refused to cooperate with the interim Soviet military government and was wrongly accused of organizing the Sinuiju Students’ Uprising against Soviet authority. He was severely beaten and nearly executed by a firing squad before being imprisoned again. Even in a liberated Korea, Ham served time in prison.

After Ham’s release from imprisonment, the North Korean regime offered him a position as a professor at Kim Il-sung University. Ham flatly refused. Before he escaped to South Korea in 1947, Ham was imprisoned three times altogether under the Soviet military regime and was stripped of all of his possessions.

Even in South Korea, the so-called land of freedom, Ham was subject to imprisonment. From 1947 to the late 1980s during the regimes of Syngman Rhee, Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan, Ham was repeatedly jailed or under house arrest because of his anti-regime and pro-democracy stances and activities for human rights through writings, public speeches and establishment of the outspoken monthly magazine the "Voice of the People."

Ham insisted on two main principles: the road to freedom (socio-political democracy) and the road to love (tolerance of other religions).

Just like Jesus Christ who said, "A prophet is not welcome in his own country," the values pursued by Ham were not recognized by the country he loved. Rather, in 1979 and in 1985, it was by Western Quakers that Ham was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, making him the first Korean to be nominated for the prize.

Ham was born into a rich family and had a blessed childhood, but his life and that of his family was one of continued suffering and poverty because of his integrity and strong principles.

During the Park Chung-hee military regime, a ranking official who knew of Ham’s difficult situation sent him a sack of rice during the Chusok, or Full Moon, holidays. However, Ham immediately returned the rice without touching a single grain, determined not to accept charity from an official of the military regime.

Korea's Corruption Perception Index world ranking among countries has improved considerably from position 47 to 40, but considering that Korea is the 11th largest economy in the world, we still have a long way to go.

Korea desperately needs people like Babosae, or albatross _ the bird that cannot hunt to feed itself, but flies wonderfully. Ham Sok-hon who fought the irregularities and corruption of his time and said "No" to immoral temptations.

Kim Sung-soo, PhD. in historical studies, works as head of the education and public relations team at the Council for the Korean Pact on Anti-Corruption and Transparency. He authored the "Biography of a Korean Quaker, Ham Sok-hon."