(World Watch Monitor) Hyeun-soo Lim, the Korean Canadian pastor detained in North Korea since February, was yesterday sentenced to life in prison with hard labour by the country’s Supreme Court He was convicted of numerous charges, including an attempt to overthrow the government.
The announcement, which followed a brief trial, is a blow to his family whose hopes were raised when Canada’s newly elected government committed to scaling up efforts to get him released.
Lim, head pastor at the Light Presbyterian Church in Toronto, had visited North Korea more than 100 times to distribute humanitarian aid for nursing homes, day-care centres and orphanages.
His church lost contact with him in January, and it was thought that he’d been quarantined as part of the government’s attempt to prevent the spread of Ebola. In February it was revealed that Lim had been arrested and charged with slandering the North Korean leadership and its system of government. He was accused of trying to overthrow the country and establishing a religious state.
During a press conference in July, Lim was forced to read out a public confession. Usually North Korea pronounces a sentence within weeks after such a ‘confession’, but this time it took five months. “Most likely, diplomatic efforts to secure Lim’s release failed,” World Watch Monitor was told. The source, who cannot be named for security reasons, said North Korea had probably hoped to get more out of the negotiations: “Whatever that ‘more’ is, we don’t know. Pastors like Lim, who have seen so much of how North Korea treats its prisoners, cannot easily be released. Unless Canada makes an offer North Korea can’t refuse, I don’t see Lim returning home anytime soon.”
Lim was involved in humanitarian aid and not with the underground church. It is believed his arrest and sentence will have no impact on this church network, “but a case like this does outrage the North Korean government”, the source said. “North Korean believers could be dealt with even more harshly if they are exposed.”
Another consequence of the Lim case is that North Korea now applies a stricter visa policy and NGOs – especially from the US and Canada – are much less eager to continue or start up work in Kim Jong-Un’s state.
Previous case of life sentence
In May 2014, North Korea sentenced South Korean pastor, Kim Jong-Wook to a life of hard labour. As a missionary, Kim operated from the Chinese border city, Dandong, where he provided shelter, food and other aid to North Korean refugees who crossed the border seeking relief from the famine in their country. Kim also taught the refugees about the bible.
North Korean agents infiltrated his network and convinced him to visit their country, which he did on Oct. 8, 2013. Kim was expecting to find out what had happened to some refugees with whom he had lost contact but instead he was arrested, interrogated and possibly tortured.
In February 2014, Kim told assembled North Korean television cameras he had spied for the South Korean government, had given money to North Koreans to set up 500 underground churches and attempted to overthrow the regime. After a trial in May 2014 North Korea’s state media reported that prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Kim, but the court imposed the life sentence after the pastor had “sincerely repented”.
Enemies of the state
To understand North Korea, it must be remembered that it links Christianity with South Korea and the United States, considered to be enemies of the state. Ever since North Korean Christians fled communist oppression and made a run for the South during the Korean War in the early 1950s, they have been seen as traitors. After the war, tens of thousands of Christians were arrested, forced into hard labour or put to death. A small remnant of the Christians who stayed went underground to live their faith in secret.
The successful arrests of Kim and other missionaries – such as the still-imprisoned Korean-American, Kenneth Bae, and Australian John Short who was released after two weeks of confinement – are part of the reason why North Korea has been extending its crackdown on Christian activities in its own country and the Chinese border area.
Observers believe that Christians make the North Korean authorities feel insecure by – allegedly – spying for the enemy, meeting in secret and not revering their government enough. Comparisons are sometimes made with the Jews and what they represented in Nazi Germany – the Christians in Kim Jong-Un’s regime are seen as being disloyal, which is not just a transgression of the law, but also a sin of the gravest kind that deserves severe punishment.
Horrors of Camp 25
“I was locked up for years in Camp 25 near Chongjin (a camp for political prisoners where, presumably, many Christians are held),” said one North Korean refugee. “I will never forget the prisoners who were too weak to continue their work. The guards would pick them up and put them on an automatic belt that threw them into a large oven while they were still alive.”
Despite all the arrests, the North Korean government has not won its ‘war’ against Christianity. The church has survived almost 70 years of severe persecution. According to Open Doors, an expert source on North Korean Christianity, there are about 300,000 Christians in North Korea, which has for the last 11 years topped its World Watch List of the most repressive places to live if you are a Christian.
* All quoted sources have requested anonymity for safety reasons.
Known cases of recent arrests
• John Short, 75 year old Australian, arrested in North Korea on February 16 for leaving Christian pamphlets near a Buddhist temple and on a train; released two weeks later after apologizing.
• Kenneth Bae, Korean-American, arrested in North Korea in November 2012. Sentenced to 15 years of hard labour in for carrying propaganda materials and plotting to overthrow the government.
• Kim Jong-Wook, South Korean missionary, lured to North Korea by secret agents in October 2013 and immediately arrested. He was sentenced to life in prison for his attempt to overthrow the regime and spying for South Korea.
• Robert Park, Korean-American, crossed the North Korean border on December 25, 2009 to protest against ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’ taking place in North Korea. He was held for 43 days and severely tortured.