Gerry Avant: How the temple made this Korean convert’s family history research ‘most significant’

On a very cold evening in Seoul, Korea, in December 1985, I went to the home of a Latter-day Saint couple who told me of a life-changing event that had its prelude on a hot summer’s day in 1967.

In June of that year, two young Americans — one of whom was limping — went to Dr. Kim Chang Suen’s medical clinic. He treated the young man who had the limp, administering medication for a foot infection and advised his new patient to return for further treatments. By the third visit, Dr. Kim discovered the young men were missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“The only thing I knew of the Church before the missionaries came was what my minister had told me,” recalled Dr. Kim. “The missionaries and I began talking in the clinic. They invited me to go to Church.”

He paused, shaking his head as he recounted his first impression of the little mountaintop home where a few of Korea’s Latter-day Saints met. “It was such a small house up on that mountain. One of the members of the Church lived there,” he said.

“The next Sunday, I went back to my old church. On the third Sunday, when I came out of my house, the missionaries were waiting for me on the street. They asked me why I did not go back to their church. I felt that the little house on the mountain was not really a church.

“The missionaries kept returning. During the next six months, they taught me the gospel, and I became acquainted with some of the members. They were very kind.

“Korean people are very sensitive. We can recognize something as being good. Even though the small house on the mountain did not impress me, its gospel message did. My wife and our oldest daughter were baptized on Dec. 2, 1967. Our other daughter was baptized when she was 8.”

When we met, Kim Chang Suen was serving in the Church as a regional representative. He told me that he once felt a void in his life, which he feared would never be filled. 

He was born Feb. 2, 1929, in what became North Korea. At age 20, he said goodbye to his tearful parents and began his walk to freedom. 

“I went over the mountain and made my way into South Korea,” he said. “I never saw my parents again. Two of my sisters escaped to South Korea later and told me my father had died. To this day, I do not know whether my mother is alive or dead.”

As the Kims sat side by side on a sofa in their living room, he motioned to a dozen or more books. “This is my family,” he said, referring to genealogical information dating back 70 generations that he had laboriously compiled.

I remember thinking, “This is one man really prepared to ‘take his family to the temple’ after its dedication, which was Dec. 14-15.”

He explained how he began his research. After he arrived in South Korea, he entered medical school. The Korean War started during his senior year and he served in the South Korean military. “I felt that God was helping me the whole time,” he said. “After the war, I received a scholarship and went to Germany to study.

“When I returned to Seoul, I went to the library and searched through all the books for information about my family. If I had not joined the Church, all this information I collected would have been for naught.”

He described how he was overjoyed when he heard a temple would be built in Korea. “My wife and I went to the Hawaii Temple in 1970,” he said. “That was a special privilege.”

“Privilege” was the appropriate word. A national law prohibited a husband and wife, with few exceptions, from leaving the country at the same time. When President Spencer W. Kimball announced in the April 1981 general conference plans to build a temple in Seoul, only 100 of the 20,000 members in Korea had received their endowments; only 20 couples had been sealed.

Again rubbing his hand on the cover of a volume of his family history, he said, “This temple work is most significant.”

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