I Have Seen It Grow in Korea

As told by Milton Hamilton

“We regret to inform you that the Republic of Korea government has revoked all the visas for you missionaries and has indicated that you are not wanted in the country. . . . In view of this development, you are being assigned to Japan temporarily.”

LATE in 1954, my wife and I received the above message from Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A. Earlier that year, we had graduated from the 23rd class of Gilead School in upstate New York. When we received the letter, we were temporarily serving in Indianapolis, Indiana.

My wife, Liz (formerly Liz Semock), and I were classmates in high school. Later, in 1948, we were married. She loved the full-time ministry but was apprehensive about leaving the United States to serve in a foreign country. What changed her mind?

Liz agreed to go with me to a meeting for prospective Gilead students. That meeting was held during the international convention at Yankee Stadium, New York, in the summer of 1953. After that encouraging meeting, we filled out applications for Gilead. To our surprise, we were invited to attend the next class, to begin in February 1954.

We were assigned to Korea, though three years of war had just ended in the summer of 1953, leaving that country devastated. As directed in the letter quoted above, we went first to Japan. After a 20-day ocean voyage, we arrived there in January 1955 along with six fellow missionaries who had also been assigned to Korea. Lloyd Barry, the overseer of the Japan branch at the time, met us at the pier at 6:00 a.m. Soon we were off to the missionary home in Yokohama. Later that same day, we were out in the ministry.

We Make It to Korea

In time, we obtained visas to enter the Republic of Korea. On March 7, 1955, our plane lifted off from Haneda International Airport in Tokyo for the three-hour flight to Yoido Airport in Seoul. Over 200 Korean Witnesses welcomed us, and we shed tears of joy. There were only 1,000 Witnesses in all of Korea back then. Like many other Westerners, we thought that regardless of their country of origin, all people in the Orient look alike and act alike. It did not take us long to learn differently. Koreans have not only their own language and alphabet but also their own  cuisine, physical features, and traditional dress, as well as other things unique to them, such as the design of their buildings.

Our first major challenge was that of learning the language. There were no books available to us on how to learn Korean. We soon sensed that it was impossible to duplicate exactly the sounds of Korean words using just English sounds. A person can learn correct pronunciation only by learning the Korean alphabet.

We made mistakes. For example, Liz asked a householder if she had a Bible. The householder had a strange look on her face as she left and brought back a box of matches. Liz had asked for sungnyang (matches) instead of sungkyung, the word for “Bible.”

After a few months, we were assigned to open a missionary home in Pusan, a southern port city. We were able to rent three small rooms for the two of us and the two sisters assigned there with us. The rooms had no running water and no flush toilet. Only at night was the water pressure high enough to push the water through a hose to the second floor. So we took turns getting up in the wee hours of the morning to collect water in receptacles. We had to boil the water or treat it with chlorine to render it safe to drink.

There were other challenges. The supply of electricity was so limited that we could not use a washing machine or an iron. Our kitchen was the hallway, and its only appliance was a kerosene stove. Soon, each of us learned to prepare a meal on our assigned cook day. Three years after our arrival, Liz and I both came down with hepatitis. Most missionaries in those years contracted this disease. Months went by before we recovered, and we experienced other health problems.

Helped to Overcome Obstacles

For the past 55 years, the Korean peninsula has been one of Asia’s political flash points. The DMZ, or demilitarized zone, divides the peninsula. It lies 35 miles [55km] north of Seoul, capital of the Republic of Korea. In 1971, Frederick Franz from Brooklyn headquarters visited. I escorted him to the DMZ, the most heavily fortified border on earth. Over the years, officials of the United Nations have often met there with representatives of the two governments.

 Of course, we remain neutral regarding the politics of this world, including the situation on the Korean peninsula. (John 17:14) Because of their refusal to bear arms against their fellow man, over 13,000 Korean Witnesses have served a total of 26,000 years in prison. (2 Cor. 10:3, 4) All young brothers in that land are aware that they will face this issue, but they are not intimidated. It is sad that the government would label as “criminals” Christian ministers whose only “crime” is that they refuse to compromise their Christian neutrality.

Back in 1944, during World War II, I too refused to enter military service and thus had to spend two and a half years in the U.S. penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. So although our Korean brothers have faced a more difficult time in prison, I am familiar with what these young Witnesses have gone through. It encouraged many to know that some of us missionaries in Korea had undergone a similar experience.​—Isa. 2:4.

We Face a Challenge

Our own neutrality was involved in an issue that arose in 1977. Officials imagined that we had influenced young Koreans to refuse to enter the armed services and to take up arms. So the government decided to deny reentry permits to missionaries who left the country for any reason. This restriction lasted from 1977 to 1987. If we had left Korea during those years, we would not have been allowed to return. Thus, we never went home even for a visit during those years.

We met many times with government officials and explained our neutral position as followers of Christ. Eventually, they realized that we would not be intimidated, so that restriction ended at last​—after ten years. During those years a few missionaries had to leave the country for such reasons as health issues, but the rest of us remained, and we are glad we did.

During the mid-1980’s, opposers of our ministry falsely accused the directors of our legal corporation of teaching young men to refrain from entering the military. At that, the government called each of us in for questioning. On January 22, 1987, the prosecutor’s office found the charges groundless. This helped set the record straight for the future.

God Blesses Our Work

In Korea, opposition to our preaching work had intensified through the years because of our neutrality. Hence, it became ever more difficult to find suitable locations for our larger assemblies. Therefore, the Witnesses took the initiative and constructed an Assembly Hall in Pusan, the first one in the Orient. It was my privilege to give the dedication talk on April 5, 1976, before an audience of 1,300.

Since 1950, tens of thousands of military men from the United  States have been stationed in Korea. After returning to the United States, many have become active Witnesses. We often receive letters from them, and we count it a blessing to have helped them spiritually.

Sadly, I lost my beloved companion, Liz, in death on September 26, 2006. I miss her terribly. During her 51 years here, she gladly accepted any assignment and never complained. She never suggested or even hinted at returning to the United States, the land she once said she never wanted to leave!

I continue to serve as a member of the Bethel family in Korea. The family has grown from a mere handful in early years to some 250 today. It is my privilege to serve along with the seven-man Branch Committee that oversees the work here.

Whereas Korea was very poor when we arrived, it is now one of the world’s most advanced nations. There are more than 95,000 Witnesses in Korea, nearly 40 percent of them serving as either regular or auxiliary pioneers. All of this adds to the reasons why I have appreciated being able to serve God here and see God’s flock grow.

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Arriving in Korea with fellow missionaries

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Serving in Pusan

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With Brother Franz at the DMZ, 1971

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With Liz shortly before her death

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Korea branch, where I continue to serve as a member of the Bethel family