Country reports on the LDS Church around the world from a landmark almanac. Includes detailed analysis of history, context, culture, needs, challenges and opportunities for church growth.
By David Stewart and Matt Martinich
Area: 99,720 square km. South Korea, officially known as the Republic of Korea, occupies the southern half of the Korean Peninsula in East Asia and borders North Korea, the Sea of Japan, and the Yellow Sea. South Korea controls many islands along the western and southern coast – the largest being Jeju Island. Most the terrain is hilly to mountainous. Two mountain ranges run down the eastern coast and through the south central portions of the peninsula. Many large rivers empty into the surrounding ocean, such as the Han River which flows through Seoul. South Korea experiences hot, humid summers and cold, dry winters. The majority of rainfall occurs during July and August during Changma – a brief, heavy monsoon. Periodic typhoons and hwangsa – harmful yellow dust mixed with pollution from China – are natural hazards. Air pollution, water pollution, and acid rain are environmental issues. South Korea is administratively divided into nine provinces and seven metropolitan cities.
Population: 48,636,068 (July 2010)
Annual Growth Rate: 0.258% (2010)
Fertility Rate: 1.22 children born per woman (2010)
Life Expectancy: 75.56 male, 82.28 female (2010)
With the exception of non-Koreans temporarily living in South Korea for employment or military purposes and approximately 20,000 Chinese, the entire population is Korean. Foreigners temporarily working in the country or without Korean citizenship number around one million, about half of whom are North Koreans or Chinese Koreans. South Korea has one of the lowest fertility rates worldwide.
Languages: Korean (98%), other (2%). Korean is the official language. Commonly spoken languages by foreign workers and military include English, Filipino languages, and languages from Southeast and South Asia. Only Korean has over one million native speakers (47.6 million).
Literacy: 97.9% (2002)
Indigenous states or empires have ruled the Korean peninsula from as early as several millennia BC. Due to its location between China and Japan, Korea has experienced many wars and conflicts with larger, more powerful empires and nation states. Korea became a unified nation starting in the seventh century until becoming a protectorate of Japan in 1905 and a Japanese colony in 1910. Korea did not regain independence until 1945. A Soviet-backed government in the north and an American-backed government in the south divided the peninsula in the late 1940s. North Korea attacked the south in 1950, initiating the Korean War. In 1953, the two Koreas signed an armistice which divided the peninsula at the 38th parallel along a demilitarized zone. Military-oriented administrations controlled the South Korean government between 1961 and 1993. During this period, rapid economic growth and modernization turned the south into one of the most powerful economies in East Asia. Severe economic recession in the late 1990s resulting from the Asian Financial Crisis was brief. Military skirmishes between the north and south have continued since the signing of the armistice in 1953 and remain largely unreported.
Education takes the forefront of social issues and everyday life. Confucian thought dominates cultural practices and attitudes. Koreans define their identity through their interpersonal relationships and grow strong emotional bonds with people and places with which they become familiar or share similarities. For Koreans, first impressions are very important in the development of lasting attitudes. Disappointment or pressure from others drives many Koreans to make personal decisions.
Children and teenagers usually attend public school during the daytime and private school classes in the evenings. Many families spend much of their disposable income on private school tuition for their children. Most high school students do not return home until late in the evening and leave early in the morning. Those who have full-time jobs tend to work over 12 hours a day six days a week and many sleep less than six hours a night. Koreans are emotional, reserved, studious, and take great pride in their history and ethnicity. The Hangul script was created in 1444 by King Sejong. Smoking rates are high, especially for men. It is socially unacceptable for women to smoke in public, leading to many women to smoke in secret. Alcohol is a major social pressure as friends, family and coworkers will regularly drink together. Refusing to participate can result in losing one’s job or being ostracized from a peer group. Abortion is common and socially acceptable as many women – whether married or single – have had an abortion.
GDP per capita: $28,000 (2009) [60.3% of US]
Human Development Index: 0.937
Corruption Index: 5.5
South Korea achieved rapid, sustained economic growth and development between 1960 and 2000 to become one of the world’s twenty largest economies. Close government ties with the financial sector resulted in import and credit restrictions and encouraged manufacturing exports throughout this period. The Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s resulted in the government carrying out economic reforms which allowed for greater trade and integration into the international community. Today, South Korea has a high-tech industrialized economy which specializes in superconductors, electronics, car manufacturing, shipbuilding, and telecommunications. The aging population and reliance on manufacturing exports are economic concerns. Korea’s location near China and Japan allow for abundant trade opportunities. Services employ two-thirds of the workforce and produce 58% of the GDP whereas industry accounts for a quarter of the workforce and produces 39% of the GDP. Agriculture accounts for less than 10% of the GDP and workforce; important crops include rice, roots, barley, vegetables, fruit, livestock, and fish. Primary trade partners include China, Japan, the United States, and Saudi Arabia.
Corruption is found on many levels of society. Many minor laws are not enforced by local police. Many Korean laws are passed to appease a subset of the population, but in reality are not widely enforced. Bribery occurs frequently and is a means to exert influence on others. The influence of Confucianism on Korean society has resulted in a strong sense of community and respect for others, resulting in low crime rates. Prostitution and sexual crimes are the most common law offenses.
Denominations Members Congregations
Seventh-Day Adventists 212,592 703
Jehovah’s Witnesses 97,385 1,412
Latter-Day Saints 82,472 139
Christians are the most active religious group and continue to grow in numbers. Buddhism now has fewer followers than Christianity, and most Buddhists are not religiously active in their faith. Many Christians continue some practices originating from Buddhism and Shamanism which are regarded as cultural traditions, such as ancestor veneration. A 2004 Gallup Korea survey found that 46.6% of those who were religious attended worship services at least once a month. Among those who attend religious meetings more than once a week, Protestants had the highest attendance rate at 71%. 42.9% of Catholics and 3.5% of Buddhists attended worship services more than once a week. Many Koreans actively participate in their faith for social interaction. In the 2000s, South Korea was the country that sent the second most Christian missionaries worldwide after the United States, and one of the nations with the most church congregations. Many Christians worship in small churches of fewer than 50 members. These churches meet in rented spaces near the homes of members and have strong family and social ties. The largest single congregation in the world – the Yoido Full Gospel Church – has over 800,000 adherents. Korean Buddhists often feel defensive about their beliefs and practices around Christian groups.
The constitution protects religious freedom which is upheld by the government. There is no state religion and the government maintains a clear separation between church and state. Christmas and Buddha’s birthday are recognized national holidays. Korean law mandates all males to serve for at least two years in the military. Members of groups opposed to military service, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, usually receive jail sentences for 14 months for refusing to comply with the law. Greater tolerance has occurred in recent years as some Jehovah’s Witnesses have found alternative non-military service. Religious groups do not need to register with the government and foreign missionaries may proselyte freely.
Seoul, Pusan, Taegu, Daejeon, Kwangju, Suweon, Seongnam, Ulsan, Puch'eon, Cheonju, Ansan, Ch'eongju, Anyang, Ch'angweon, Ueijeongbu, Ch'eonan, Kwangmyeong, Kimhae, Masan, Yeosu, Cheju, Chinju, Kumi, Iksan, Mokp'o, Kunsan, Weonju, Sunch'eon, Ch'unch'eon, Kuri, Kangneong, Osan, Kyeongju, Hanam, Chinhae, Kyeongsan, Andong, Hwado, Tonghae.
38 of the 39 cities with over 100,000 inhabitants have an LDS congregation. 68% of the national population lives in the 39 largest cities. The Seoul Metropolitan Area accounts for 50% of the national population.
Members of the Church serving in the United States military during the Korean War first brought the Church to the peninsula. The first Korean members joined the Church abroad and facilitated the introduction of missionaries and a formal Church presence. Missionaries first arrived in 1954. At this time Korea belonged to the Northern Far East Mission based in Japan. By 1962, the Church created the Korean Mission which was later renamed the Korea Seoul Mission. At the time there were seven branches. Seminary and institute began in the early 1970s. Additional missions were organized in Pusan (1975), Seoul West (1979), and Taejeon (1986). In 2010, the Church discontinued the Korea Seoul West Mission, which was consolidated with the Korea Seoul Mission and Korea Daegeon Mission.
LDS Membership: 82,472 (2009)
In the early 1960s, there were 1,600 members. By 1975, there were 9,000 members, increasing in to 29,000 by 1983. Rapid membership growth continued in the 1980s and early 1990s as there were 50,000 members by 1989 and 65,000 members by 1993. Growth slowed dramatically after 1993. Membership surpassed the 70,000 mark in the late 1990s and reached 72,445 by 2000.
During the 2000s, membership grew slowly, typically adding between 1,000 and 2,000 members a year. There were 75,149 members in 2003 and 79,652 members in 2006. Annual membership growth rates have generally ranged from one to two percent over the past 15 years.
In 2009, the Korea Seoul West Mission reported one of the highest baptizing years in the past decade, baptizing over 350 converts.
Wards: 93 Branches: 46
The first stake was organized in Seoul in 1973. By 1975, the Church had one stake, six districts, eight wards, and 26 branches. Three additional states were added in Seoul and the first stake in Busan was created before 1980. In the 1980s, Gwangju, Incheon, Masan, Cheongju, Daegu, and Jeonju received their first stakes. The Church organized three additional Seoul stakes. In the 1990s, three new stakes were created in Suwon, Anyang, and Daejeon. In 2010, six districts functioned in the country in Gangneung (1987), Hongseong (1988), Suncheon (1996), Jeju (2001), Ulsan (2007), and for the United States military and English-only speakers (1970).
The number of congregations grew to 146 by 1989, including 68 wards. In 1999, the Church had the most congregations ever functioning in Korea with 175. The number of congregations steadily fell during the 2000s to 164 in 2001, 150 in 2004, 143 in 2007, and 139 in 2009. Both the number of wards and branches were in decline during this period.
Activity and Retention
Most wards have between 50 and 100 active members whereas branches usually have fewer than 50 active members. Member activity rates vary from congregation to congregation. Most congregations have between 25% and 50% of their members consistently attending church meetings. 10,000 from throughout the country assembled in 2005 for the 50th anniversary of the Church in Korea. Elder Yoshihiko Kikuchi announced at the anniversary that sacrament meeting attendance for the first crossed the 10,000 mark. 3,300 were enrolled in seminary and institute during the 2008-2009 school year. Most military branches have few members. The Seoul (English) Branch had over 250 active members in 2010 – almost twice as large as the largest Korean wards in the country.
The Church has lost contact with the majority of Korean members. Koreans frequently move and provide little notice, leading to a loss of contact with many less active or inactive members. The government appears to not permit the finding of lost members through their resident registration number. Nationwide active membership appears to be around 10,000, or 12% of total membership.
Languages with LDS Scripture: Korean, Chinese, English
All LDS scriptures are available in Korean and Chinese. Most Church materials are translated into Korean and Chinese. Most South Asian and Filipino languages spoken by migrant workers have translated Church materials .
Nearly all congregations meet in Church-built meetinghouses. A few small branches meet in rented spaces.
Humanitarian and Development Work
Few humanitarian projects have been conducted by the Church in recent years due to the level of economic prosperity and government welfare programs which administer the needy. The Church has donated time and resources to charitable organizations, orphanages, and the disabled.
Opportunities, Challenges and Prospects
The Church enjoys full religious freedom in South Korea. Missionaries may serve from outside the country on missionary visas which have been easily obtained. Street contacting and the distribution of church literature occur without restrictions. Open proselytism on subways and visiting door to door in apartment buildings occurs, but is often discouraged by local administration as it is seen as intrusive and bothersome.
Christians boast of a proud religious history and tradition. Early persecution from the Buddhist majority did not reverse the initial efforts of Protestant and Catholic missionaries. Today Catholic, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches are powerful social institutions. Church activity for many Koreans is more social than spiritual, as congregations often grow closely knit yet retain a sense of welcoming to outsiders. Consequently these and other Protestant denominations have experienced steady, strong growth in their membership over the past century. The LDS Church has developed a strong foundation of members, but their numbers remain too few and resources for accommodating culture challenges often experienced by Koreans – whether Latter-day Saints or not – do not compare to the church infrastructure of more established Christian groups. Outreach to church-going Koreans has seen some success, but heavy social involvement in their respective churches has made this group largely unreceptive to even brief and basic LDS proselyting approaches. Misconceptions about the LDS Church are widespread, and lead most Koreans to dismiss the church as a socially unacceptable institution or confuse it with other unaccepted denominations such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unification Church.
The Church has experienced the greatest success among Koreans with a Christian background who are not active churchgoers. Missionaries and local leaders often struggle to keep these individuals active, as they usually do not develop a pattern of regular church attendance. Few Latter-day Saints converts come from a Buddhist background as most are highly secular and have actively avoided Christianity due to strong Christian missionary activity over the past two centuries.
Widespread substance abuse is a major deterrent to joining the Church and remaining active, especially among Korean men who experience a high prevalence of these behaviors. Many Korean men who regularly drink and smoke have had no interest in meeting with missionaries and learning about the Church. Those who drink and smoke only occasionally or not at all tend to be most receptive. For this and other reasons, there are fewer active men than women in the Church. Some congregations have only a few or no active adult males sitting with the congregation during sacrament meetings, as most sit on the stand to bless the sacrament or because they are in a leadership position. The drinking of green tea is a cultural practice contrary to LDS teachings and can be source of tension between members and the general public as well as a testimony building issue for investigators, new converts, and less active members.
Mission outreach is primarily limited to cities with over 100,000 inhabitants. 70% of the national population resides in cities with an LDS presence. Most rural areas and cities with fewer than 100,000 inhabitants have no mission outreach centers. Some cities such as Hanam once had mission outreach centers but no longer do. Opportunities for increasing national outreach appear most favorable in currently unreached large to medium-sized cities near Seoul and other large cities. Examples of cities in the Seoul/Gyeonggi Province area include Pyeongnae/Hopyeong, Gwacheon, Uiwang, and Dongtan
In the recent past, Korean Church leadership has expressed little interest in opening additional cities for missionary work and creating additional congregations in cities where members travel long distances to attend Church meetings. Southeast of Seoul, Gwangju has 80,000 inhabitants but has LDS congregation or mission presence, although dozens of members live in the city. Members attend several different congregations nearby, but must travel longer distances and are more prone to becoming less active due to issues of distance, accessibility, and limited fellowshipping opportunities. Church members often dismiss missionary opportunities in cities like Gwangju due to the availability ofestablished congregations in nearby cities, but this policy has reduced national outreach capabilities and has contributed to the declining number of congregations over the past decade. Many areas within the city boundaries of Seoul have almost no LDS presence and no nearby congregations, such as the Guro region. Past efforts to open new branches in these locations which did not come to fruition may have contributed to the lack of interest by local leaders to organize groups or small branches in lesser reached areas.
The declining number of missionaries has further contributed to the declining national outreach of the Church in South Korea. Missions can barely staff the needs of current congregations. Missionaries have been called in fewer numbers due to the declining receptivity of the general population and stretched mission resources worldwide.
Member Activity and Convert Retention
Low member activity rates have been primarily the result of the large number of youth baptized in the 1970s and 1980s who did not remain active into adulthood, as well as long-standing quick-baptize practices which focused on baptismal numbers but placed little emphasis on prebaptismal preparation, gospel habits, and convert retention. Many congregations at this time had most members consisting of youth and young adults whereas today middle aged members form the majority of most congregations. Many of these youth did not develop habitual church attendance and today many nominal members cannot recall joining the Church. Part-member families have been more vulnerable to stop attending Church regularly due to family pressures and opposition. This has been particularly apparent in families with a non-member father.
Emigration of Korean members to the United States, Australia, China, and New Zealand has stunted church growth over the past two decades. Many of the strongest active Korean families in the Church left the country and have not returned. Reasons for high levels of emigration include attempts to escape cultural pressures which challenge LDS standards, efforts to obtain inexpensive, high quality education, and desires for a higher standards of living. In November 2009, the Asia North Area presidency and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland strongly admonished remaining members in a nationwide satellite broadcast to not leave the country except temporarily for educational purposes. The Area Presidency also issued a promise that once members remained in Korea, greater growth will occur. However, in a highly Americentric church, it is unlikely that emigration of strong Latter-day Saints from Korea will decline until the underlying dynamics change with greater commitment not only to missions and congregations, but to the long-term social and educational institutions of the indigenous church. It is likely that the creation of a BYU-Seoul or BYU-Tokyo could help to reinforce local or regional Mormon identity and decrease the attraction of the West. However, the recent closure of the Korean MTC suggests that LDS infrastructure in Korea will rely on the American church more and not less in coming years.
New move-ins have been a source of member inactivity when members do not integrate into their new congregations. Some units, particularly small wards or branches, are prone to extremes of failing to fellowship or giving excessive attention to investigators or new move-ins to the point where they feel uncomfortable. Congregation consolidations in the past decade have aimed at increasing the size of active membership per congregation, but at times have led to declines in active membership due to increased travel times and social disruptions when old congregations are closed and members must travel to more distant locations to worship with others they do not know well.
All of these factors, combined with low LDS birthrates and the paucity of new converts, have resulted in sacrament attendance nationwide remaining relatively unchanged over the past two decades.
Ethnic Issues and Integration
One of the most demographically homogenous nations in the world, South Korea only experiences ethnic integration issues between native Koreans and foreigners temporarily working in the country. Those who cannot speak Korean are often poorly integrated into congregations even if they attend church meetings weekly. Outreach among non-Koreans has seen some success as converts in recent years have included North Americans, Europeans, Filipinos, and Iranians. South Asians have also demonstrated interest in the Church. Little has been done to actively reach non-Koreans, whereas mainstream Christian denominations have developed outreach capabilities for each ethnic group. At times, missionary work among non-Koreans has been discouraged by local Church leaders due to the complexities they bring in integrating into established congregations. The LDS Church only has specific outreach for English speakers in the United States military. Outreach among non-military foreigners has been sporadic and tailored to Westerners.
Language issues have only been encountered among non-Koreans who reside far from English-speaking congregations. All major minority groups have LDS materials translated in their respective languages. Missionary outreach has occurred among many of these groups, but has been sporadic and unorganized. Potential for future language-specific outreach appears highest for English, Mandarin Chinese, and Tagalog speakers. The Seoul (English) Branch had as many as 30 Filipino members in 2010. A Tagalog Sunday School class has functioned for a number of years to meet their language needs. Many Filipino members speak English with enough proficiency to understand English Church services and interact with non-Filipino members, thereby reducing the need for a separate Tagalog-speaking congregation.
In 1975, the full-time missionary force for Korea grew to 320. The Church established the Korea MTC next to the Seoul Korea Temple in the 1980s. In the late 2000s, the Korea MTC closed and native missionaries traveled to the United States to receive training. At its peak in the 1980s and 1990s, the native Korean missionary force may have grown as large as 200-250 just in South Korea. In November 2009, there were 114 South Koreans serving missions worldwide. In mid-2010, the full-time missionary force appeared around 1975 levels.
Although South Korea is the top missionary-sending country outside of the United States for Protestant missions, rates of LDS missionary service from Korea have been mediocre, due in large part to low member activity, especially among men. The national requirement for young men to serve fourteen months in the military and intense university schedules which allow little allowance for an extended hiatus make it difficult for young men to fit in missionary service without compromising education and career. Many Protestants serving missions are older individuals are women. Paths for non-traditional missionaries, extended youth mini-missions, and a greater emphasis on member-missionary work may help to increase missionary activity among Korean Latter-day Saints.
Missionaries usually find most of their investigators through teaching English in weekly English classes offered in church meetinghouses or by private lessons. The private lesson English program teaches English for 30 minutes and about the Church in Korean for 30 minutes. The program has been effective in finding many interested individuals through a passive proselytism approach. However, the program has also tended to propagate large pools of investigators who are not committed to actively learn about the Church or to follow through on commitments extended by missionaries. Some Koreans exploit non-Korean missionaries for English language opportunities. Street contacting experiences little success. In the mid-2000s, missionaries in most missions were advised not to ask members for referrals as they were counseled to first to gain the trust of members who would automatically become motivated to willingly supply missionaries with references of interested family and friends. In recent years, members have become increasingly involved in missionary work on a congregational level, which missionaries in the Korea Seoul West Mission in 2010 reported had lead to an increase in convert baptisms in the past year.
The Korea Pusan Mission undertook a massive reformation in missionary activity and finding skills in 2004. Missionaries were counseled to never walk from appointment to appointment as to appear to others as being too busy to simply walk and to hurry investigators into baptizing with little pre-baptismal teaching and preparation. In 2004, the mission baptized almost 1,000 converts, a large number of which were young adult women. The following year, regional Church leaders visited the mission, chastised the missionaries and mission leadership, and corrected these practices as there was no increase in sacrament attendance during this period.
The majority of wards can staff bishoprics, presidencies, and auxiliaries. The lack of sufficient leadership in areas not nearby already established congregations has contributed to declining national outreach. Branches often struggle to fill their branch presidency with native members and oftentimes rely on Priesthood holders in nearby congregations to assist in administrative affairs.
South Korea belongs to the Seoul Korea Temple district. The Church announced the temple in 1981 and dedicated it in 1985. Many Koreans can trace their genealogies back several millennia and have an ample supply of family file names to perform temple ordinances in behalf of. Endowment sessions are offered at least six times a day Tuesday through Saturday. Korean members utilized the temple most often late in the evenings and on Saturdays due to demanding work schedules and long travel times. Senior missionary couples have been assigned regularly as ordinance workers.
South Korea has the third largest Church membership and third most stakes in Asia following the Philippines and Japan. Member activity rates rank among the lowest worldwide. Church growth patterns share many similarities with Japan as both nations experienced the most rapid membership growth during the 1970s and 1980s, low growth rates today, and declining numbers of congregations.
South Korea offers a paradox of thriving, highly active Christian communities which are the second largest sender of Protestant missionaries in the world, and a stable but stagnant LDS community which suffers from much lower activity rates, has shown no measurable increase in church attendance in twenty years in spite of nominal membership increases, and remains highly dependent on the U.S. Church for funds and missionary manpower.
Continued immigration of full-member families and low numbers of convert baptisms continue to hurt prospects for long term church growth. In 2009 and 2010, the Church achieved the same numbers of convert baptisms with about half to two-thirds the missionary force from just five years earlier, indicating either greater missionary productivity, or that conversion rates are less dependent on missionary numbers. Greater member involvement in missionary work has improved convert retention in many areas. The Church has yet to reach a critical mass of active membership to spur expansion of national outreach and raise public awareness. The effect of past low-commitment quick-baptized practices generating large lists of disengaged inactives but few active members continue to burden local congregations and absorb missionary resources. Greater growth and self-sustainability will only occur once the Church reaches new breakthroughs with youth and young adult proselytism, increasing the numbers of active full member families, and improves convert retention rates. No stakes are close to dividing and no districts are close to becoming stakes. Several stakes appear close to consolidating – especially in northern Seoul – unless reactivation efforts or new move-ins increase active membership and reverse the trend of congregation consolidations and declining activity.
Although years of intensive reactivation work demonstrate that prospects for activating most inactive and never-active members are dim, improvements in convert retention which will eventually reflect on member activity are possible with forward-looking programs. Future prospects of the LDS Church in Korea depend heavily on the consistent implementation of scriptural standards of baptismal preparation requiring development of gospel habits and integration into local congregations through regular church attendance and member fellowshipping before baptism. Greater vision and long-term investment not only in congregations and missions, but in LDS educational and social institutions such as a regional church university for East Asia, may be necessary to develop a strong indigenous church identity and to stem the flow of many of the most active Korean Latter-day Saints to the West.
 “Korea, Republic of,” International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009. http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127275.htm
 “Korea, Republic of,” International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009. http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127275.htm
 “South Korea,” Country Profiles, retrieved 8 July 2010. http://newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/contact-us/south-korea
 “Friends in Korea,” Friend, Aug 1975, 33, 48, inside back cover
 “South Korea,” Country Profiles, retrieved 8 July 2010. http://newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/contact-us/south-korea
 “Friends in Korea,” Friend, Aug 1975, 33, 48, inside back cover
 “Friends in Korea,” Friend, Aug 1975, 33, 48, inside back cover.