Lim (c) during a visit to an agricultural project in North Korea (Photo: Lisa Park/Light Presbyterian Church Toronto)
Lim (c) during a visit to an agricultural project in North Korea (Photo: Lisa Pak/Light Presbyterian Church Toronto)

Korean-Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim has spoken about his time in a North Korean labour camp, where he was detained for the last two and half years after being given a life sentence for charges including trying to overthrow the government.

Lim, 62, appeared “slightly frail but in good spirits” when he made his first public appearance at the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Toronto, where he served as the chief pastor before his incarceration. He said he faced “overwhelming loneliness” in the labour camp, where he “ate 2,757 meals in isolation” from the day he was detained to his release on 9 August.

His time in the labour camp was spent breaking up coal and, during the winters, digging holes in the frozen ground. “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,” he said.

Lim said he thought Kim Jong-un released him “as a gesture of good will” to help reduce some of the pressure on North Korea during its standoff with the US over weapons testing.

His fate contrasts with that of 22-year-old American citizen Otto Warmbier, who died shortly after North Korea released him in June, in a coma, after detaining him for 15 months for stealing a small flag from a Pyongyang hotel.

North Korea released Lim “on sick bail” after earlier attempts by his government had failed. A source told World Watch Monitor in December 2015 that he didn’t see Lim returning home “anytime soon” because he would have seen how North Korea treats its prisoners and therefore be considered a dangerous source of information.

Lim had visited North Korea “dozens of times” to help with orphanages and nursing homes, his church had said. The founder of Lim’s church, Chai Hoon Park, who recruited him in 1985, said:”He escaped from the fire pit.”

Sources: Reuters, Channel News Asia