Gerry Avant: Former POW, refugee says his faith never wavered

I made several trips to Asia, either to cover for the Church News a temple dedication or report on events presided over by Church presidents or other general authorities. During one assignment to Korea I met Kim Ki-Young, who for reasons pertaining to his travel business with an international clientele had anglicized his name to Ki-Young Kim. He was a patriarch in the Seoul Korea Yong Dong Stake when I met him in 1985. 

A major portion of my conversation with him centered on his experiences as a prisoner of war during World War II. Extracting details from our interview, I wrote this description:

As the temperature dropped to 30 degrees Fahrenheit below zero Ki-Young Kim shivered under a blanket in his cell, which was really a barn with wide slits in its plank siding being used as a prisoner of war barracks somewhere between Manchuria and Siberia.

From force of habit, he counted to see how many of his fellow prisoners were still alive. He was Korean, but most of his fellow prisoners were Japanese soldiers captured during World War II and sent to the POW camp guarded by Russians. As the POWs huddled together for warmth, Kim turned to a higher source of comfort — prayer.

The son of a Protestant minister, he had grown up in northern Korea with a strong belief in God and Jesus Christ. No matter what hardships he faced, his father had taught him, the Lord would help him endure. As a prisoner of war, his faith was tested as never before. 

At the beginning of WWII, he had been drafted into military service by the Japanese government, which had occupied Korea since 1910. Just as the war was ending, he was captured in Manchuria. He remained a prisoner of war for four years.

“We were never given any indication of how long we would be there,” said Kim. “Sometimes I got by on a small piece of bread for three or four days.”

With an attitude tempered by Christian forgiveness, he added, “I’m sure our captors did not intend to treat us so badly. They did not have enough to feed their own people; they had little to give prisoners. Russia was a poor country at that time; even their own people had a hard time to live.”

Kim’s linguistic ability helped him and others survive the POW camp. “I was able to learn enough Russian to talk to some of the guards and persuade them to bring extra food,” he said.

“I often prayed for the Lord to save my life. The only purposes I had in life were to see my parents, my brothers and my friends, and to serve the Lord.”

Upon his release, he returned home to his family in northern Korea. By that time, the little nation in eastern Asia had been divided into two countries: North Korea and South Korea.

“My family and I came to South Korea as refugees on a fishing boat at the beginning of the Korean War in 1950, under escort of United Nations forces,” he recalled.

The Korean War lasted three years. Part of that time, Kim unloaded supplies sent from the United States to the port in Pusan, South Korea. By age 27, he had learned some English from American soldiers, which enabled him to work in the officers club and mess hall during the last year of the war.

Many years later, his interest in English made him receptive to missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “I saw two elders on the street one day and, thinking I could pick up some English from them, I stopped to talk. We became friends, and I saw them from time to time on the street. They asked me if they could visit me in my home, and I said they could.

“At first, I was interested only in their language. But when they began teaching the gospel, I recognized doctrine that I had believed all my life. Even though I had been through some miserable circumstances, I still had strong confidence that God is a living Father and that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world.

“Ever since I had come from the north, I had been looking for a good church, but every place I went the members were always arguing with each other. They would get into heated discussions about doctrine and how things should be run in their churches. Although I had hesitated to join any church, I felt there must be a true church on earth. I just didn’t know where it was.”

He and his wife, Kum Jae, were baptized in 1970. At the time of our interview, their son Kyung Hun Kim, a returned missionary, had graduated from Brigham Young University and was a mechanical engineer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.