In the early 1950s, while Americans were intrigued by battles of television's space hero Flash Gordon, Koreans faced a battle of their own.
And while American boys laughed at the antics of the cartoon character Howdy Doody on television, 12-year-old Han In Sang of Korea tried to survive in a world made brutal by the onslaught of the Korean War.The numbing challenges of those years left a profound impact upon In Sang, who was later to be the first Korean missionary, the first Korean mission president, the first Korean regional representative and is now the first Korean General Authority. He was called June 1 to the Second Quorum of the Seventy.
Standing at 5 foot 5 inches, Elder Han, 51, is unassuming and modest. But his life is a remarkable collection of achievements. He speaks some Japanese and fluent English, and earned a black belt in tae kwon do martial arts. Elder Han has a facility to learn and retain an incredible amount of detail, say associates.
The new General Authority said that President Gordon B. Hinckley of the First Presidency has been a powerful example in his life.
Elder Han is highly spiritual, and his humility runs deep. He remains in awe of the calling that has come.
"I am still scared," he said. "I always thought that these General Authority Brethren are far, far greater in every way than ordinary members like myself, and the gap was too wide to be narrowed. But there is no question that I will do my honest best."
Elder Han has a firm grasp of what needs to be done and how to do it.
"In my opinion, the Church in Korea needs leadership training the most, especially when we baptize about 3,000 Koreans a year.
"The quality of leadership is high and the commitment of the people is great. The seed of the gospel that was planted during the Korean War in the 1950s has resulted today in 14 stakes, four missions, and the Korean temple.
"I am firmly convinced that the Korean Peninsula will be the front base for spreading the gospel to the whole Asian continent."
Since his calling, Elder Han said, "The telephone at my home and office has been busily ringing. I am greatly surprised at the joy and excitement of the Korean saints in and out of Korea. Many said they were praying for a native Korean General Authority. This humbled me and has given me additional weight on my shoulders."
But responsibility is not new to the shoulders of Han In Sang. He has spent his life shouldering duty that seemed too heavy to bear. The first fell to him with the start of the Korean War.
"I hate to recall those days, even now," said Elder Han. "According to Korean tradition, the eldest son assumes responsibility for the family livelihood if something happens to the father."
When the war started, he explained, enemies tried to destroy all the community leaders. Because his father was a community leader, he fled to the country with his family. Then he went into hiding.
"My father was hiding from his enemies in a cave in the mountains," recalled Elder Han. "I didn't have any shoes, so twice a week in my bare feet, I walked through the snow to take food to my father.
"It was a real struggle to get up the mountain. I still have scars on my feet
and legs; I would stumble and fall onto jagged stumps where others had cut fire wood."
He, too, chopped trees for fire wood, sometimes cutting himself.
But more difficult was the struggle to provide food for his expectant mother and seven younger brothers. "Sometimes I had to fight bigger and older boys for a head of cabbage in a field. I chased fish in freezing streams with my bare hands to provide protein for my mother."
The ordeal seemed too much for a boy. In despair, he thought of taking his own life. When those dark times came, he remembered his father hiding in a cave, and his starving mother and little brothers.
"If I died, who would provide food for them?" he wondered.
As he grew older, he severely questioned the meaning and purpose of life, wondering why he had been born in Korea under such difficult conditions.
In high school he received answers to those severe questions. The answers came not in class but from friends. He became the junior class Red Cross chairman, succeeding a young Latter-day Saint friend in that post. "He told me about the Church and I went with him to MIA," said Elder Han. He added that the branch met in a school building when he first attended in 1956.
He immediately sensed a difference with these people. "They talked about life, happiness and eternal families.
"I hadn't believed in any of these things," he said, believing that such things could be believed only by someone who has not known hunger, poverty and cold.
"But after I learned about the gospel, my attitude changed. Even in the dark of night or on a stormy day, life is beautiful."
He was baptized a year later in 1957. Influential in his decision to be converted was Dr. Kim Ho Jik, a scholar and leader who joined the Church in the United States and made great contributions to the Church in Korea before his untimely death in 1959.
Among Dr. Kim's contributions was influencing the Han family. "My family knew and admired Dr. Kim very much," he said. "It was easier to become involved in the Church because of him."
Elder Han attended college and then began serving his mandatory military obligation to his country.
"I talked about a mission," he said. "My father thought I was a little strange; I was at that age where I should be ready to find a job and settle down. I pleaded with my father for days. I had but one wish for myself – to get a good night's sleep and serve a mission."
His call to serve a mission in Korea came as his military service ended. "The mission president told me I was `fish on the table.' He meant I was an experiment. If I worked out well as a missionary, other Koreans would be called. If I failed, they wouldn't call others."
As a missionary, Elder Han baptized his mother. Later all of his brothers joined the Church. He served in Taegu as presiding elder, branch president, seminary teacher and Korean language teacher for other missionaries. And he proselyted.
"All that work took its toll," he said. Although he was in excellent physical condition, he caught hepatitis and the disease lingered.
While ill, he was assigned to re-translate the Book of Mormon into Korean by mission Pres. Gail E. Carr. Earlier, he said, Pres. Carr had given him manuscripts to translate, and had evaluated his translation ability.
"I packed up and went down to Pusan solely to devote my time for the completion of the translation of the Book of Mormon.
"I still remember the feeling I had at that time. I was scared and lost, and deep in my heart I was trying to run away from the assignment knowing clearly that I could not."
The young missionary completed the translation although he lost 26 pounds and was ill the entire time. "When I became sick, I had to get on my knees and depend on the Lord rather than my intellect," he said. "My sickness didn't get worse, but I didn't get better until the work was completed."
He described translation of the Book of Mormon as the most difficult task he'd ever done, but it was also "a privilege and choice blessing."
After completing his mission, he married Kyu In Lee, and they are parents of five children.
He worked for a dairy products company until being hired full-time by the Church as a translator. Since that time, he's filled many leadership positions, including branch and district president. Later he was called to preside over the new Korea Pusan Mission, and afterwards became a regional representative.
The maturing of the Church in Korea "has been a gradual thing," he said. "When we were given a stake, we all felt we grew up a step. When the first mission president and regional representative were called, we felt we had advanced our status within the Church. When we were given a temple, we advanced another step."
Now, "with careful leadership training, the Church in Korea can grow tall and strong," he said.
Elder Han In Sang
- Family: Born on the outskirts of Seoul, Korea, Dec. 10, 1938, to Han Chang Soo and Lee Do Ho. Baptized in April 1957. Married Kyu In Lee in Seoul on March 26, 1966, and sealed in the Hawaii Temple Aug. 23, 1973. Parents of two daughters, Po Heo, 24, and Sun Hee, 14; and three sons, Tae Hee, 22; Chang Hee, 20; andYong Hee, 17.
- Education: Graduated from Inchon Junior College and Hongik University in Seoul; graduated from Korean Army A.G. school in personnel administration.
- Employment: Worked for a dairy products company, then in Church translation, as translation services manager, Church distribution center manager, regional manager for temporal affairs in Seoul.
- Church Service: First Korean to serve a mission, 1964-1966; branch president twice, 1964, 1966; president of Seoul West District, 1971; president of the Korea Pusan Mission, 1975-78; regional representative, 1978-85.