Canadian Pastor Sentenced to Hard Labor in North Korea Released
The Canadian government and a large church in Toronto were able to find a solution to the plight of a 60-year-old pastor who had been sentenced to life in prison with hard labor for crimes against the North Korean regime. Reverend Hyeon Soo Lim is a pastor of the Light Korean Presbyterian Church. Although he grew up in South Korea, he made Canada his home in January 1986, at the same time he formed the church. He since became a Canadian citizen. In the 1990s, he became involved in humanitarian aid. He has worked in many different countries, but his focus has been North Korea. He was released in August of 2017.
Why North Korea?
In the ‘90s, North Korea experienced a four-year famine, in which hundreds of thousands of people died. North Koreans were not unfamiliar with famine, having been in crisis since the time of the war in the 1950s. In the 1990s, the North Korean economy collapsed when the Soviet Union collapsed. The Soviets had been providing aid to the agricultural center of North Korea. The local government could not respond to the crisis, and food production decreased. China tried to fill in the gap, but when it faced grain shortfalls in 1993, it, too, had to reduce its aid to the country.
In the following years, Korea, both North and South, experienced massive floods. It wasn’t just the destruction of current crops that caused a famine, but the destruction of emergency reserves of grain. Every social class was affected, with child malnutrition reaching 14 percent in 1997. In perspective, it was 3.21 percent in 1987, and 7 percent in 2002.
Hyeon Soo Lim has worked with children’s organizations in North Korea since 1997. He and the church have tried to improve the lives of many people in the country by starting businesses and importing food and other goods. He and the church have fed thousands of people. Lim’s efforts have been focused around the district of Rajin, which is in the Rason Special Economic Zone where North Korea is making an effort to improve foreign investments.
Imprisonment in North Korea
In January 2015, Lim traveled back to North Korea and disappeared. It was later determined that he was arrested for crimes against the government. Specifically, the court determined that Lim attempted to “undermine its social system with religious activities.” However, Lim had confessed to assisting North Koreans in defecting. It is suspected that Lim only confessed because of coercion. The prosecution originally sought the death penalty, but Lim was sentenced to life imprisonment on December 16, 2015.
North Korea and China are both clamping down on Christian activities. Another North Korean missionary, Kenneth Bae, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, but after two years of being imprisoned, he was released. Three other Americans were released this past spring under an easing of tensions between Trump and Kim Jong-un. Lim ended up being in custody for 2 years and 7 months, and had originally been sentenced to life in prison with hard labor.
Canadian diplomatic efforts were made through the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, since Canada does not have an embassy there. Lim suspected he was released as a gesture of goodwill by Kim Jong-un after rising tensions with the West. He said both faith and propaganda had helped him through the ordeal.