Canadian pastor freed by North Korea describes ‘loneliness’ of imprisonment

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A Canadian pastor has spoken publicly for the first time since his release from imprisonment in North Korea last week.

Hyeon Soo Lim, 62, spoke at length in Korean after attending a Sunday service at his church in Mississauga, Ont., near Toronto.

During the service, at Light Presbyterian Church, 6965 Professional Court, near Derry Road East and Goreway Drive, he sat at the front of the church, accompanied by his son and infant granddaughter.

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Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim held his granddaughter during a church service at the Light Presbyterian Church in Mississauga, Ont., near Toronto, on Sunday. He later got up to address the congregation, speaking Korean. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

On Saturday, Lim was reunited with his family in Ontario after more than two years in detention in North Korea. The country originally sentenced him to death, but that sentence was commuted to a life of hard labour.

In a prepared statement in English, Lim said he endured harsh conditions, was hospitalized four times and was forced to dig holes in frozen ground while detained.

Lim said experienced “overwhelming loneliness” during the more than two years he spent in detention. He described in detail the “difficult moments” he suffered while digging holes outside and breaking apart coal inside a facility.

“From the first day of my detainment to the day I was released, I ate 2,757 meals in isolation by myself. It was difficult to see when and how the entire ordeal would end,” Lim said.

“During the winter, I had to dig holes that measured one metre wide and one metre deep. The ground was frozen. The mud was so hard that it took two days to dig one hole. It was incredibly challenging. My upper body was sweating; My fingers and toes were frostbitten. I also worked inside a coal storage facility, breaking apart coal,” he said.

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Pastor Hyeon Soo Lin, second from right, of Mississauga, Ont., greets family after being released from a North Korean prison at an undisclosed location on Saturday. (Canadian Press)

“In the spring and summer, I worked outside, eight hours a day, in the scorching sun.”

Lim said the hard physical labour took a toll on his body and he went to hospital four times, once for two months.

To keep himself busy, he said he read more than 100 books on North Korea, read the Bible in English and Korean five times, memorized more than 700 Bible verses, and worshipped alone on 130 Sundays.

“While I was labouring, I prayed without ceasing,” he said.

He said his moments of “discouragement, resentment and grumbling” turned into “courage, joy and thanksgiving.”

Lim also thanked the Canadian and Swedish governments for securing his release, church communities for their prayers and his friends for their efforts to free him.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, Special Adviser Daniel Jean and former Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion were among the officials he thanked by name.

Lim, who was arrested in North Korea in 2015 and sentenced for alleged crimes against the state, was released last week on what the North Korean government called “sick bail” after a delegation headed by Jean travelled to North Korea.

His son, James Lim, told reporters in a news conference on Saturday that the family is thrilled that his father is now home.

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James Lim, the son of Hyeon Soo Lim, spoke to reporters at the Light Presbyterian Church, in Mississauga, Ont., after his father’s return home from a North Korean prison on Saturday. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Lim himself did not appear at the news conference, but he walked away from the plane unaided. His son said his father appeared to be in “good health” though the family plans to arrange for a complete checkup. His son said Lim lost about 50 pounds during his incarceration.

When Lim was reunited with his family, he met his granddaughter, under a year old, for the first time. according to his son.

In a statement on Saturday, Global Affairs Canada said it celebrated his return to Canada.

“Canada has been actively engaged on Mr. Lim’s case at all levels, and we will continue to support him and his family now that he has returned,” the statement read.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said she is “deeply relieved” and “happy” that Lim has been released.

Freeland thanked the Swedish government, which represents Canada in North Korea, for its work in helping to secure his freedom. She said his family worked tirelessly on his behalf, with the support of his congregation.

“I’m just so glad he is out of there. He is a very, very brave man,” she said this week.

Went to North Korea in 2015 on humanitarian mission

His release came nearly two months after U.S. college student Otto Warmbier died shortly after he was released from North Korea in a coma. Warmbier had been sentenced to 15 years of hard labour in March 2016 after being accused of stealing a propaganda poster.

Lim had travelled to North Korea in January 2015 as part of a regular humanitarian mission to North Korea where he supports a nursing home, a nursery and an orphanage.

North Korea Detained Canadian

Hyeon Soo Lim, centre, is shown here being escorted to his sentencing in Pyongyang, North Korea, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2015. (Jon Chol Jin/Associated Press)

Family and supporters said Lim had made more than 100 trips to North Korea since 1997 and that his trips were about helping people and were not political.

The Canadian government, in its travel advisory for North Korea, advises against all travel to the country “due to the uncertain security situation caused by North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program and highly repressive regime.”

The government maintains no office in the country. “The ability of Canadian officials to provide consular assistance in North Korea is extremely limited,” it says.

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Canadian pastor freed by North Korea describes ‘loneliness’ of imprisonment

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