Ham Sok-Hon was a Korean Quaker, twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by American Friends. His commitment to non-violence earned him the name, ‘the Gandhi of Korea.’
"I am a man who has been 'kicked' by God, just as a boy kicks a ball in the direction he wants it to go. I have been driven and led by Him.”
Ham was born in North Korea and was brought up as a Presbyterian Christian. In 1919, he joined the March 1st Movement, the beginning of Korean resistance to Japanese occupation. This led to his losing his place in high school, so it wasn’t until 1923 that he went to Japan to study to be a teacher.
There he first encountered the Non-Church movement, an indigenous Japanese Christian movement that had no liturgy, sacraments or ordained clergy, spoke out against social injustices and advocated pacifism.
In 1928, he returned to Korea to become a history teacher at his old school. Frustrated by the impossibility of teaching what he described as ‘a series of humiliations, disasters and failures’, he began to write his own history of Korea, from the perspective of an oppressed people. This book (English title – Queen of Suffering: a spiritual history of Korea) led to his being imprisoned by the Japanese for ‘harbouring dangerous ideas’. It called for Koreans to find a spiritual identity, but rejected the path of violence. It closed with the line:
“Put your sword down and think hard.”
During the Second World War, when, as Ham wrote, ‘Anyone suspected of having the least bit of nationalistic thought, or liberal thought was arrested on any number of flimsy pretexts and placed in prison "to rot"’, he was imprisoned for a year in 1940 and again in 1942. Korea gained its independence from Japan in 1945, but within a month of liberation, the country was occupied by the Soviet Union in the north and the US in the south. Now, as a Christian activist who refused to cooperate with the Soviet military government, Ham once again found himself in prison.
In 1947, he fled to South Korea, where over the next forty years he persistently criticised a series of corrupt and dictatorial regimes there.
Ham had read about Quakers when he was still at school but his first major encounter with them was in 1953, in a relief camp in Kunsan. He was impressed by their pacifism, egalitarianism and their active participation in questions of social justice. At the time, however, Ham was still involved with the Non-Church Movement. In 1958, he helped to set up Ssi-al Farm, which was intended to be a community modelled on Gandhi’s Ashram.
Shortly after this, something happened that led to Ham being ostracised by the Non-Church Movement. Ham himself described it as a ‘sin’; his biographer wrote that they rejected him for views they perceived as heretical. Whatever the cause, this was the point that Ham started to attend Seoul Quaker meeting, which had been set up in1958.
“You were already a Quaker before you became one,” an American Friend, Arthur Mitchell, told him.
Between 1961 and 1963, Ham attended both Pendle Hill in America and Woodbrooke in England. He became a member of the Society of Friends in 1967, after attending the Friends World Conference in North Carolina.
During this time, Ham continued to speak out against dictatorship and injustice in South Korea. He carried out a hunger strike in 1965, was imprisoned in 1976 and 1979, and was placed under house arrest in 1980. South Korea finally achieved full democracy in 1987. The following year, when the Seoul Olympics were held, Ham was selected to be the head of the Peace Olympiad, which drew up a declaration calling for world peace.
American Quakers twice nominated Ham Sok-Hon for the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1979 and 1985, something of which he himself felt quite unworthy. His own name for himself was ‘Foolish Bird’, after the Japanese name for the Albatross, which cannot catch its own fish but lives off scraps. Others knew him affectionately as ‘Teacher Ham’.
In 2000, Korean’s selected Ham posthumously as a National Cultural Figure.