Pioneering in South Korea


The courage and examples of Latter-day Saint pioneers in South Korea have altered many lives and helped give the Church a strong base there.

Pioneering in South Korea

A pioneer is someone who goes before, showing others the way to follow. One of the first Koreans to join the Church was Dr. Ho Jik Kim, an influential educator who was baptized in the United States in 1951 while earning his doctorate. After his return to Korea two months later, he embarked on a remarkable career in government and education, rising to vice minister of education for South Korea. His credentials helped the Church gain legal recognition and helped pave the way for the arrival of the full-time missionaries in 1956.

Another well-known early convert is Elder In Sang Han of the Seventy, who was baptized in 1957. While serving as one of his nation’s first native full-time missionaries, he translated the Book of Mormon into Korean. Prior to his call to the Seventy in 1991, Elder Han was the first Korean to be called as a mission president and as a regional representative.

Also well known is Ho Nam Rhee, who was instrumental in organizing and developing the Church’s seminary and institute program in South Korea and who was called in 1973 as South Korea’s first stake president. He later served as a mission president there.

Other Korean pioneers are less well known but have also prepared the way for others to follow by helping establish the restored Church in South Korea. Three of their stories follow.

David Nakso Chon

When full-time missionaries first knocked on his door, David Nakso Chon answered the door for his father, who was recuperating from an injury suffered during a drinking party with friends. David was surprised to find two foreigners speaking to him in fluent Korean. “I had expected them to speak English,” he recalls. 1 “I did not know what to do, so I said in Korean, ‘I don’t believe in any religion. I don’t want anything to do with you. Please go away. I’m busy.’”

David’s father had taught his children to be wary of Christians. “Don’t trust them,” he had said. “Christianity is not what they believe and preach.” So David was shocked at his father’s next comment: “How can you let them stay out in the cold? Let them in.” David recalls, “He asked me to sit in and listen to them so that I might learn something good from the missionaries. I thought my father was insane because of his injury and illness.”

David listened to the missionaries. But he was relieved when they left, and he avoided them by being away from home during their next three visits.

“One day I was at home lazily reading some books when I heard a knock on the door and then my mother speaking to the elders. My mother told them positively that I was home and that they could come in. I tried to escape because I was embarrassed, but there was only one door in the house to the outside. I apologized to the elders hesitantly.”

David soon began to seriously study the missionaries’ message, but his studies were hampered by an unwillingness to pray and to live the Word of Wisdom. “I was not a heavy drinker,” David recalls, “but I struggled with many situations involving social drinking during and after college.”

That struggle ended in the spring of 1958.

“One day, I was pondering under the warmth of a late spring sun and I felt prompted to pray about my concerns of baptism and other related problems. I had never prayed to God, my Heavenly Father, in my life. After I had prayed, a peaceful, warm feeling came over me.”

David Nakso Chon was baptized on 24 May 1958 and became active in his growing branch. Soon after finishing college, Brother Chon was drafted into the army. For three long years his testimony and convictions were tested. His now-strong faithfulness to the Word of Wisdom nearly cost him his life.

“On one occasion, my captain (the duty officer of my regiment) got drunk and came into the base with many bottles of whiskey. He ordered that the headquarters staff report to his office immediately for a drinking party.

“The captain offered drinks around the table, pouring each drink individually to make sure that each person drank the whiskey. Everyone knew that as a Latter-day Saint I did not drink. … The captain watched me carefully and insisted that I drink, but I told him that I do not drink liquor. He ordered that I drink, but again I told him that I did not drink liquor.”

In response, the captain pulled out his pistol, loaded it, aimed it straight at Brother Chon, and again ordered him to drink the whiskey. Many thoughts raced through Brother Chon’s mind as he pondered his options.

“The room was very quiet, but I remained calm, yet firm, as I said, ‘Captain, sir, I will not drink it.’ It seemed a long time before he withdrew his gun and said, ‘I can’t do anything with you.’ We were all relieved and returned to our barracks. The next morning, he came to visit me and apologized to me for the previous night’s incident. Later on, he consulted with me about his personal problems.”

Brother Chon’s experiences in the Korean army strengthened his resolve to keep the commandments and remain faithful throughout his life. Following his tour of duty in the army, he served a full-time mission. In 1968 he married Julie Induk Chang. The couple, who have seven daughters, have served in many leadership callings.

“I appreciate the elders’ persistence and patience so that I could have the true gospel of Jesus Christ in my life,” Brother Chon says. “I am truly indebted to the elders and others for their sacrifices and love they have shown for me and my family. Because of them, I have served in many areas of the Church with faithful and wonderful members throughout my life. I am a very happy man.”

Keun Ok Hwang

Ever since she was a child, Keun Ok Hwang dreamed of studying medicine and making service her life’s work. Her nights were filled with prayers that someday her dreams would come true, and her days were filled with hard work and concerns about the future. 2

Because her country faced poverty, sickness, and other difficulties during the Japanese occupation of Korea during World War II, Keun Ok’s chances of studying medicine were not promising. That opportunity looked even less bright after she, a devout Presbyterian, was expelled from school for refusing to worship the Japanese emperor. Undeterred, she promised her Heavenly Father she would learn his will and serve him if he would grant her the opportunity to study.

“Girls in those days faced a lot of opposition and discrimination while attending school and receiving an education, but through the grace of God my desire to attend school came true and I was able to attend middle and high school,” she says.

Keun Ok rejoiced at the liberation of her country following the Korean War, but that joy was short lived. With communists wresting control in the north, many people sought to escape to the south.

Keun Ok Hwang was a passenger on the last train allowed out of North Korea. Upon arriving in the south, she went to work caring for children in refugee camps. That experience prompted her to revise her educational plans. While she was a refugee in Pusan, she graduated from college and in 1952 began work as a high school teacher.

Six years later, with encouragement from her minister, she sought and received an invitation to study in the United States. “Through the summer of 1959, I studied English at the University of California at Berkeley, and I intended to enroll as a full-time student in the upcoming fall semester.”

While in California, Keun Ok met two Korean students from Brigham Young University. They persuaded her to visit BYU, which she did in 1959. She was so impressed with the campus and the people she met that she decided to stay and enroll in school. In June 1962, shortly after returning to South Korea, she was baptized.

In 1967, two years after being appointed superintendent of Songjuk Orphanage, Sister Hwang received a visit from Stan Bronson, a Church member stationed at the U.S. Air Force base in Seoul. Brother Bronson had come to the orphanage looking for a worthwhile way to spend his off-duty hours.

Brother Bronson always brought his guitar and taught the children to sing many songs. One of the girls’ favorites was “‘Give,’ Said the Little Stream” (Children’s Songbook, 236) because its message echoed an important lesson from Sister Hwang and Brother Bronson: each child had something to share. The orphans’ courage, enthusiasm, and feelings of self-worth grew, and Brother Bronson soon had them performing publicly.

The choral group, which Sister Hwang named the Tender Apples Choir, became well known in South Korea. On one occasion they performed before South Korean president Chung Hee Park, U.S. ambassador William J. Porter, and General Charles H. Bonesteel, head of the United Nations command.

Eventually the girls learned that Brother Bronson and Sister Hwang were Latter-day Saints. The girls had known Sister Hwang was a Christian, but she had agreed not to openly discuss her beliefs with them because the orphanage was sponsored by a Protestant denomination. Once the girls learned she was a member of the Church, many wanted to know more. Some began going to the mission home to hear the missionary discussions; several were baptized.

Some members of the orphanage support group became concerned. “Because I was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I could not stay at the orphanage,” Sister Hwang says of those events in 1969. “The support group thought my ideals were in conflict with their ideals.”

With reluctance, Sister Hwang resigned her position and returned home, only to be followed by some of the children. She scolded them at first but was moved by their love for her. Sister Hwang welcomed them into her home. That gesture marked the beginning of her own orphanage, which she named the Tender Apples Home.

At their new home, the girls had prayer, scripture study, and family home evening. They learned to work and to serve. They attended Church meetings on Sunday and were given a significant opportunity to spread the gospel.

When Eugene Till became president of the Korea Seoul Mission in 1974, a survey revealed that only about 10 percent of Koreans recognized the Church by name. To change that, President Till obtained Sister Hwang’s permission to allow members of a full-time missionary singing group to work with the Tender Apples Choir and prepare a musical program designed to introduce Koreans to the gospel. The group was popular and successful, performing public concerts, singing for the military, and appearing on national television and radio. Three years later, more than 70 percent of Seoul residents recognized the name of the Church.

For nearly two decades, Sister Hwang provided a home for Korean children, many of whom later served missions and married in the temple. She has also served as district Relief Society president and as a worker in the Seoul Korea Temple, dedicated in 1985. By being a role model for people in and outside the Church, Sister Hwang has brought happiness to many lives. She is a Latter-day Saint pioneer who has made a difference.

Young Joon Kwon

Young Joon Kwon was born in 1970. His parents, who had joined the Church before he was born, nurtured their children’s faith and helped them develop testimonies of the restored gospel.

“When I became a senior in middle school, I began to actively participate in seminary classes and in the Young Men program,” Young Joon recalls. “I began to tell my friends about the Church and its activities. But while doing this, I faced strong opposition not only from classmates and friends who belonged to other churches, but even from some members of the Church whose parents would say that you can’t faithfully attend seminary classes and at the same time compete successfully in school work.” 3

When he entered high school, Young Joon set two goals: keep the Sabbath holy and save money for a mission. In a nation where students feel great pressure from parents and peers to excel in school, Young Joon made time for scripture study, prayer, seminary, and Sunday Church meetings.

“During high school, I strove to apply the principles I learned in Church in carrying out my studies in school,” he says. “Sometimes participating in Church activities and meetings seemed to be a burden because it required precious hours I could otherwise have used for study. But I relied on Heavenly Father to guide me through that period of hardness and pressure. And I am glad I did.”

Young Joon had planned to pursue a career in economics but spent many hours on his knees asking for guidance and direction. “To my relief and surprise, the Lord gave me important answers through my patriarchal blessing that I should go to law school. On the strength of that I changed my major from economics to law.”

He prepared for and passed the admission exam for the law school of Seoul National University, the most prestigious university in the country. But soon after beginning his college education he decided to interrupt his studies to accept a mission call. Many of his friends, school leaders, and Church associates thought Young Joon was making a mistake to give up a hard-earned opportunity to attend Korea’s most prestigious university to become a missionary. But he felt sure he was doing the will of the Lord by accepting the call.

“The mission field brought me new understanding and maturity,” recalls Brother Kwon, whose three brothers also served missions. “My family was a strong support. They encouraged me with their sincere prayers and loving letters. Though I was living far away from home in the mission field and later, as I had to spend so many long hours in study, I could feel their presence in my heart.”

Having served an honorable mission and having finished some of his courses, Brother Kwon decided to take the National Judicial Examination, similar to the bar examination in the United States. The examination, used to select lawyers and judges, is the most difficult examination in South Korea. Every year, some 20,000 students and college graduates take the test. In 1993 only 280 applicants passed. In a country where academic achievement is highly prized, the top scorer on this examination is considered one of the brightest young legal minds in the country.

Young Joon Kwon, who was then 22, received the National Judicial Examination’s highest score in October 1993. National media heralded Brother Kwon’s remarkable success. Journalists were surprised to learn that Young Joon Kwon was a Latter-day Saint, and they were impressed with the motto on the front door of his parents’ house: “Home is heaven on earth.” In every media interview, Brother Kwon attributed his success to his faith and the positive influence of the Church.

After completing two years of judicial training and as part of mandatory military service, Brother Kwon enlisted in the navy as a legal officer. On 5 May 1995 he married Yeonshin Lee in the Seoul Korea Temple. Today Brother Kwon serves as a navy law officer at naval headquarters in Taejon, South Korea.

Brother Kwon likens the hardships and obstacles he faced as a youth and full-time missionary to the difficulties faced by pioneers. “My heart is filled with gratitude to our omnipotent Heavenly Father,” he says. “He has let me feel the joy once expressed by Ammon: ‘Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things’” (Alma 26:12).

In South Korea, Latter-day Saint pioneers have blazed a trail for others to follow by living the gospel and setting good examples. By so doing, they have transformed their own lives, their families, and their nation for the better.

[photos] Foreground: The Chon family—Julie (back, left), David, Elaine, Su, Jennette, Jennifer, Christine; Beth (front, left), Michelle. (Photo courtesy of Spencer J. Palmer.) Background: A view of Seoul, the capital of South Korea. (Photo by Suhan Pak; background and family photos electronically composed.)

[photos] Elder Won Yong Ko, an Area Authority Seventy, and his wife, Eun Hee Kin. (Photo courtesy of Spencer J. Palmer.) Top left: Young members can be future pioneers. (Photo by Kellene Ricks Adams.)

[photo] Sister Keun Ok Hwang’s work brought recognition of the Church’s name in a country where it was not widely known. (Photo courtesy of Shirley H. Palmer.)

[photo] U.S. serviceman Stan Bronson, “Daddy Big Boots,” helped Sister Hwang teach the girls of the Tender Apples Choir, which became nationally known in South Korea. (Photo courtesy of Stan Bronson.)

[photos] Peaceful garden areas are part of Korea’s beauty. (Photo by Kellene Ricks Adams.) Top, right: The Kwon family—Young Joon, Yeonshin, Jinhyuk. (Photo courtesy of Spencer J. Palmer.)

Spencer J. Palmer, a former mission president in South Korea and former president of the Seoul Korea Temple, is professor emeritus of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    Quotes from this section are from The Korean Saints: Personal Stories of Trial and Triumph, 1950–1980 [1992], 72–79.

  2.   2.

    Information for this section is from The Korean Saints, 291–94; and from “Whang Keun-Ok: Caring for Korea’s Children,” Ensign, Oct. 1993, 46–49.

  3.   3.

    Based on a personal account provided to the author.