Gerry Avant: By finding gospel, Korea’s first general authority ‘scored a touchdown’

I met Elder Han In Sang while covering the dedication of the Seoul Korea Temple, Dec. 14-15, 1985. He was a regional representative and manager of the Church’s translation office and distribution center in Korea.

I wrote an article in which I described Elder Han as a “living treasure,” a designation given in certain parts of Asia to individuals who make outstanding contributions to a nation’s artistic or cultural heritage. Although no one is officially designated as a living treasure by the Church, I felt Elder Han could qualify as one. He was the first Korean to serve as a mission president.

Quiet and unassuming, at 5 feet 5 inches tall, he described himself as “just a little guy who made a final pass and scored a touchdown” in having found the gospel and its blessings.

He almost didn’t get a chance to make that final pass. He was 12 years old when the Korean War erupted in 1950, throwing his life into turmoil.

As a youngster, he was left in charge of gathering food and firewood for his mother and seven younger brothers and sisters. “My father was hiding from his enemies in a cave in the mountains. I didn’t have any shoes so, in my bare feet, I walked through the snow to take food to my father twice a week. 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 firewood. I chopped wood and sometimes cut myself. I gathered food for my family. Sometimes I had to fight bigger and older boys for a head of cabbage in the field. My mother was expecting another baby. I chased fish in freezing streams with my bare hands to try to provide protein for her.”

He said he couldn’t understand why he had been born in Korea and under such difficult conditions. But as years passed, purpose and meaning entered his life.

At school, he met a boy who was a member of the Church and who invited him to go to a youth activity.

“They talked about life, happiness and eternal families. I hadn’t believed in any of these things. I had studied German, and the first sentence I learned was, ‘The sky is blue, and life is beautiful.’ I laughed, because that was so absurd. I said that could be said only by someone who had not known hunger, poverty and cold. But after I learned about the gospel, my attitude changed. Even in the dark night or on a stormy day, life is beautiful.”

He studied with the missionaries a year before he was baptized; he had a great desire to serve as a missionary. His mission call came while he was fulfilling mandatory military service. He was 27, and the only missionary in Korea who had not been to the temple. “The mission president told me that I was ‘fish on the table.’ He meant I was an experiment. If I worked out well as a missionary, then other Koreans could be called. If I failed, they wouldn’t call others.

“The loneliest night of my life was [one Christmas] when everyone was opening their letters, cards and gifts from their families. No one in Korea had been on a mission before, so no one in my family or other local members thought about sending anything to me. … When I became a mission president (Korea Pusan Mission, 1975-1978), one of the first things I did was make certain every missionary received a box filled with something for Christmas.”

As a young missionary, he functioned in Taegu as a presiding elder, branch president, seminary teacher and language teacher for other missionaries. He became very ill. He was never sick while in the military for 30 months. He said he was in great physical condition and had a black belt in tae kwon do. “I was very annoyed because I got sick,” he said.

“I was sent back to Seoul for medical treatment. … I was given the assignment to translate the Book of Mormon into Korean. I was convinced I would die as soon as the work was finished, that the only reason I was being kept alive was to do that work. I was sick the entire time I worked on the translation. I lost 26 pounds from my already little body. … 

The Lord gave me talents and language. When I was a young boy the Japanese occupied Korea. I was fluent in Japanese. … In the community, if someone had to speak to the Japanese government people, they would take me along.

“I was very ambitious, but the Lord humbled me. When I became sick, I had to get on my knees and depend on the Lord rather than my intellect.”

Elder Han said translating the Book of Mormon was the most difficult work he had ever done. “But it was also a privilege and a choice blessing,” he said.

After his mission, he married Kyu In Lee. He served as a member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy, 1991-1996.

—Gerry Avant is a former Church News editor. She continues to write frequent columns for the Church News.