Korea: Land of the Morning Calm

Dedicated South Korean Saints balance traditional values with gospel service and come up with a formula for spiritual peace.

Brilliant purples, blues, and reds push through concrete cracks in downtown Seoul and flourish in velvet green South Korean mountains as the country’s national flower determinedly lives up to its name. Called moo gung hwa, which means “everlasting flower,” this stubborn plant seems to be in bloom nearly year-round, quickly replacing each withered, dry petal with a new, fragrant one.

The flower’s determination to survive is greatly admired by the Korean people, who can recite stories of generations of ancestors who have demonstrated similar determination. Koreans have spent lifetimes defending their boundaries and beliefs and establishing a unique national identity different from those of the surrounding countries which, for varying periods of time, have ruled them.

Map of Korea

“We are taught as youngsters about our ancestors,” reflects Choi Mi Young, a forty-year-old mother of three and a staunch Church member. “We are taught about loyalty and determination; we are taught to be proud of who and what we are.”

That fierce determination is certainly advantageous as the gospel has taken root and grown in fertile South Korean soil. Some of the first Korean converts were baptized in the early 1950s by Latter-day Saint military personnel serving in the Korean War. Today, Church membership in South Korea nears the sixty-thousand mark, with fourteen stakes and a temple.

Christianity is certainly not new in Korea. Although the nation’s main religion is still Buddhism, more than one-third of the forty-two million people who live in South Korea profess to be Christians. But being a Church member is not easy in a country that has experienced a tremendous amount of upheaval during the last few decades.

“In the last few years, there have been great changes politically and economically,” Sister Choi observes. Korea, dubbed the Land of the Morning Calm hundreds of years ago, has struggled to find a calm balance between hectic modern progress and centuries-deep tradition.

Sister Choi and her husband, Choi Seok Koo, are representative of a growing number of first-generation converts, determined to raise their children anchored in the gospel. “We read scriptures, we pray together. We try to show our children what our values and priorities are so that they can learn by example where peace and security can be found,” Sister Choi says.

“We want our children to know God and his truths, to know where they can find the answers,” concurs Brother Choi.

A cardiologist, Brother Choi works six days a week, leaving by six o’clock in the morning and often returning as late as nine or ten o’clock at night. These working hours are not unusual for Koreans, who find that the fast-paced Korean business and technological world extracts a heavy toll in time. But Brother Choi makes it home a bit earlier on Monday for family home evening and on Thursday to fulfill his responsibilities as a temple worker in the Seoul Korea Temple.

“We make sacrifices for our family and for the Church,” he acknowledges. “But we sacrifice for the things we love and the things that are important to us; those are the things that bring peace.”

Whether living in a bustling, modern metropolis or in sleepy mountainside villages, members find peace and guidance in the gospel. Halfway across the Korean peninsula in the Yang San village, Chun Young Jun and Lim In Sok are raising their four sons with the same values and principles as the Choi family, but in a different setting. After living in Pusan, the couple moved to the village so they could spend more time together as a family. Sister Lim runs a preschool and Brother Chun pursues a writing career. (Many Korean women retain their maiden names after marriage.)

The Chun family have recently discovered new talents. Reciting a story he had found in the Friend magazine and had read to his own children, Brother Chun recently won a nationwide storytelling contest. Now, complete with makeup and costumes, he and his wife spend many afternoons entertaining a rising generation with “stories with morals.”

As a result of winning the contest, the Chun family was deluged with media attention. Numerous television programs and newspaper articles appeared telling the Chun story. Leading almost every report was an observation about the unity and commitment found in the family. “The people who visited us were amazed,” Sister Lim observes. “But we were just living gospel principles.”

A few years ago, the Chun family would not have been unusual; the Korean culture is steeped in familial traditions. But South Korea, like other countries battling to keep abreast of worldwide progress, finds that business and economic concerns often overshadow historical precedence.

For Cho Young Hyun, who serves as bishop of Poong Hyang Ward in Kwangju, his determination to live gospel principles became an advantage in the competitive business world.

After completing his university studies, Bishop Cho became a candidate for a prestigious chemical engineering position with one of South Korea’s largest oil companies. As part of the hiring process, he interviewed with all of the company’s directors. “They sat in front of me and fired off questions,” he explains.

One of the questions asked was how he felt about family responsibilities in comparison to company responsibilities. “I think they were anticipating that I would assure them my first priority was with the company,” Bishop Cho says. “But I answered, without hesitation, that no success could compensate for failure in the home. My answer surprised them and moved them. And I was able to share the words of a prophet.”

Bishop Cho got the job. But after only five months, he received an offer to teach in the Church Educational System. Despite the fact that his salary would be cut by two-thirds, he accepted the offer and now teaches in Kwangju, a community in southwestern Korea near where he grew up.

“From the time I was young, I wanted to be a teacher,” says Bishop Cho as he reflects on the direction his life has taken. “But teaching math or science or history didn’t interest me. I wanted to teach people things that could change their lives. And now I am.”

The lives that Bishop Cho is changing include those of young students who attend the numerous seminary and institute classes held throughout South Korea. The seminary and institute program has gradually gained momentum in the country as local Church leaders recognize that the youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow and must see for themselves where peace and happiness can be found.

Sister Lee Kyung Hee, a member of the Seocho Ward in Seoul, teaches early-morning seminary. As a returned missionary, she recognizes the importance of establishing gospel priorities at a young age.

“I learn from these kids,” she explains. “As I study and prepare lessons for them, I learn details of the gospel and reinforce my testimony. Teaching seminary gives me a chance to do something for Heavenly Father. I share with the students my testimony, my life, my experiences. And as long as I serve Heavenly Father, he keeps blessing me.”

In Sister Lee’s early-morning seminary class, students learn to apply scriptural teachings to current-day situations. “I love reading about Alma and the sons of Mosiah on their mission,” says one student. “I can learn from their examples and their courage. For the first time in my life, I’m facing conflicts with my friends and my beliefs. I feel power from the Lord as I read the scriptures, attend meetings, and make correct decisions.”

Education is a highly competitive endeavor in Korea; the elementary or primary school years prepare students for exams that qualify them for further education. Attending classes and studying for ten to twelve hours a day is not uncommon. Taking time out for religious activities can present a frustrating conflict, especially if a student is the only Church member in his or her home.

One young member in Pusan is familiar with that dilemma. Forbidden by her mother to attend Church meetings, this teenager has faithfully continued to pray and read the scriptures, believing that someday her mother will relent.

“I know what’s important to me and that if I continue to obey and do what I can, the Lord will bless me,” she states simply.

Han Sang Ick of the Shin Dang Ward in Seoul knows that he has been richly blessed as a result of his obedience. Although his life has not taken the path he had originally planned, Brother Han says, “I am happier today than I ever imagined.”

A university drama student with aspirations to perform and teach, Brother Han was selected as student body president of the Latter-day Saint institute in Seoul. “All the prior presidents had served a mission,” he explains. “I found myself doing some serious thinking about whether I should serve a mission or not.”

Brother Han, a convert at seventeen and the only member in his family, struggled with his family responsibilities. His father had died, and as the eldest son, he was responsible for his mother. “She really expected me to graduate, marry, and take care of her. That is the pattern established through the years.”

Instead, Brother Han graduated, arranged for his mother to be taken care of, and, at age twenty-six, became a full-time missionary. “And of course, that was the right decision,” he concludes. “My mother was blessed, and I established a pattern of righteous decisions.”

It was on his mission that Brother Han learned a great lesson about the Book of Mormon. “As missionaries, we were told to tell the people first about the Book of Mormon and the Joseph Smith story. I felt that those things were harder to understand and accept and that it would be easier for investigators to accept the gospel principles gradually,” Brother Han says.

However, he quickly became frustrated with the lack of response from investigators. After fasting and praying, “I received my answer,” Brother Han says. “I knew I had to teach the Book of Mormon first. I recognized that I hadn’t been relying on the Spirit’s ability to touch people and change their attitudes. It surprised me, but when I was obedient, people accepted those gospel principles and ideas that I had thought would be so difficult for them.”

While a 26-year-old full-time missionary might be unusual in most countries around the world, many Korean missionaries are that age. Due to a mandatory 2 1/2-year military stint and strict education requirements, Korean men often serve missions after completing their military service and graduation. Serving a mission is becoming more common for Korean Saints, both men and women. Currently, there are four missions in South Korea, with more than 25 percent of the missionaries being native Koreans.

Of course, learning the gospel from a native Korean has certain advantages; missionaries often share with investigators personal experiences of blending Korean culture with gospel principles. Those personal testimonies can be instrumental in helping new members make major life-style changes.

One of the biggest challenges faced by Korean members, especially those involved in the world of business, is obeying the Word of Wisdom. “Drinking and smoking is a way of life here, especially part of the business and social world,” observes Joo Duck Young, a member of Dunchon Branch. “After business hours, men go and drink together socially. It is an established and accepted part of work.

“But Korean Latter-day Saints find that after work, they have Church callings to fulfill or family responsibilities to perform. Without personal knowledge that the Word of Wisdom is an eternal principle relating to our health and that the family unit is an eternal unit, you feel that everyone is succeeding in the business world but you. Each member has to know what is eternally important.”

And Brother Joo should know. As director general of the Ministry of Trade, he is the highest-ranking South Korean government official in the Church. His colleagues have come to respect his standards and even envy them.

“The gospel teaches diligence and honesty and conscientiousness,” he explains. “And even more important, the gospel teaches us to be kind. Koreans are very private people; they don’t get involved in other people’s lives unless they are related. When I go out of my way to help someone, people are often surprised. But they sense that I am sincere, that I really care.”

Being on the receiving end of such uncharacteristic kindness can change lives. In Naju, sixteen-year-old Seo Jin Oo is alive today, thanks to the faith and love of his family and dozens of gospel friends.

Jin Oo was at school, studying during a recess break, when a classmate flew into a rage and hit him on the head with a club. Dazed but still conscious, Jin Oo moved to the back of the classroom, where he fell unconscious to the floor.

For the Seo family, the next thirteen days were filled with blessings, prayers, and round-the-clock vigils. The summer weather was blistering hot, the hospital was not air-conditioned, and there were few nurses. Jin Oo’s parents, Seo Young Won and Kim Kyung Ja, were responsible for keeping their son’s temperature down by continually applying cool towels to his feverish body.

“There was always a member or a missionary there,” recalls Brother Seo. Members traveled to the hospital to give Jin Oo’s parents much-needed breaks. Jin Oo’s name was put on the prayer roll in the Seoul temple, and members throughout the Kwangju stake held special fasts.

“The doctors and nurses tried to prepare us for his death,” Sister Kim observes. “But we kept on hoping. We had faith.”

After two surgeries, Jin Oo awoke from the coma and, contrary to doctors’ predictions, has suffered no brain damage or lasting effects from the incident.

“It was an extremely emotional time for us,” says Sister Kim. “But we certainly learned what really mattered and where we could turn for help. Jin Oo’s experience has strengthened us as a family and as a branch. We’re closer, more unified, and more aware of others and their needs. We really do have a greater determination to love and serve others.”

Radiating the peace of the gospel, South Korean Saints—who comprise one-tenth of a percent of the country’s total population—are determined to keep growing. And that determination, like that of the ever-blooming moo gung hwa, makes a difference for Latter-day Saints in the Land of the Morning Calm.

[photos] Photography by Kellene Ricks, except as noted

[photos] Above: Mountains offer a soft backdrop to modern-day Seoul, a city growing as its people progress. (Photo by FPG International.) Left: Ko Won Yong and his wife, Kim Eun Hee, in traditional Korean clothing, still worn on special occasions.

[photos] Upper right: The Chan family share the gospel with many of their friends and neighbors. Above: South Korea is a lush green, mountainous country where many people still farm for a living. Lower right: Students study during an early morning seminary class.

[photo] The Seoul Korea Temple has richly blessed members in this country.

[photos] Above: Magnificent centuries-old buildings add a rich feeling of heritage to the Korean culture. Right: The Seo family experienced a great blessing when fasting and prayers helped save their injured son.