Since its establishment in 1948, the Republic of Korea, with its capital at Seoul, has survived a high level of volatility in its government. The Korean War of the early ’50s resulted in a division between North and South, and the republican form of government, interrupted by various (sometimes violent, sometimes non-violent) student revolts, military coups, and other revolutions, has evolved into its present Sixth Republic. Despite it all, the Church, introduced into Korea during the 1950-53 war by American servicemen, has grown steadily.
In May 1961, Gordon B. Hinckley – then an Assistant to the Twelve, a position which would now be the Quorum of Seventy – toured Korea with Mission President Paul C. Andrus of the Northern Far East Mission. They met with servicemen’s branches and local congregations, offered instruction to local leaders, and in general assessed the progress of the Church there. On Sunday, May 14, they met in Seoul, working with 158 priesthood holders in their morning priesthood session and addressing 500 members in an afternoon meeting which resulted in the organization of three branches. They spent most of Monday, May 15, working with the new branch presidents. On Tuesday, May 16, they planned to fly to Tokyo to continue their tour of the mission.
Those plans were altered overnight.
Elder Hinckley was asleep in his room on the 8th floor of the Metro Hotel in downtown Seoul. “At 1:30 a.m. Tuesday morning, I was awakened by a terrible crackling noise which seemed to be right outside my window. The thought crossed my mind, ‘What a crazy hour for a Chinese wedding!’”
He didn’t realize that he was listening to the sound of automatic rifle fire until President Andrus, whose room was on the 7th floor, knocked on Elder Hinckley’s door and told him that he and Sister Andrus had seen tracer bullets outside their window.
The Mormons, along with other hotel guests, gathered in the hotel corridor, uncertain of what was happening until a hotel employee, listening to the radio, informed them that Major General Park Chung-hee and the armed forces of the Republic of Korea were staging a coup d’état against the government of Premier Chang Myon.
“A Korean with a portable radio translated a broadcast saying that the ROK Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force had taken over the government and the radio station,” wrote Elder Hinckley in a special report to Church leaders, air mailed as soon as conditions permitted.
From the window of President Andrus’ room we noted the broken windows and counted 26 pockmarks in the masonry where bullets had hit during the 46 minutes [of the firefight]. Apparently the battle between the military and the police forces had been taking place in the street below our windows and bullets had been flying past while I had my head out the window looking for a Chinese wedding.
The entire takeover by the military went much faster and [more] smoothly than I would ever have thought possible. After the big burst in the early morning, all was relatively quiet and normal. I hope it will continue that way. The Korean people have seen so much of sorrow. They need peace and good government to permit them to get on their feet politically and economically.
All air flights into and out of the country were canceled, so the visitors were forced to remain in their hotel rooms rather than proceeding to Tokyo. Elder Hinckley watched the next day as Koreans went about their normal business, despite the presence of armed military patrols. “These people have seen so much of war and suffering that a revolution did not seem to disturb them.”
The telephone system was still working, and President Andrus contacted the missionaries, instructing them to stay at home for the time being, and to obey all curfews and other laws imposed by the revolution.
The Church leaders were soon able to resume their tour of the Far East Mission. Assistant Hinckley became Apostle Hinckley in December 1961. The military junta ruled South Korea until December 1962, when its leader, Gen. Park, was elected as president of the country. He governed through peaceful times and upheavals (and through the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Republics) until he was assassinated in 1979. The Church has grown to some 80,000 members in Korea, and Seoul is home to a temple.