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Hyeon Soo Lim, Canadian pastor jailed in North Korea, may be freed for goodwill, friend hopes

A friend of Hyeon Soo Lim, the Canadian pastor jailed for life in North Korea, hopes he will be released in a show of good faith and good publicity.

Mississauga congregation to hold prayer meeting on Sunday

Hyeon Soo Lim speaks during a news conference in Pyongyang on July 30. (Kyodo/Reuters)

Footage released showing Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim being led through a North Korean courtroom shackled, looking haggard and gazing at the floor is "hard to watch" for Lisa Pak. 

But she hopes Lim could be released in a gesture of goodwill by the North Korean government.

A member of the 3,000-member Light Korean Presbyterian Church that Lim heads in Mississauga, Ont., Pak told CBC News Thursday that her congregation is praying for the safe return of the pastor, who was arrested in February while travelling in North Korea.

This week, Lim received a life sentence with hard labour for crimes against the state. Lim, who is in his early 60s, was sentenced after a 90-minute trial.
Hyeon Soo Lim was sentenced on Wednesday by North Korea's Supreme Court to life in prison with hard labour for what the court called crimes against the state. (Jon Chol Jin/Associated Press)

In July Lim appeared at a news conference organized by North Korean authorities in Pyongyang and admitted to plotting to overthrow the North Korean state.

But other foreigners detained in North Korea and later released have said they were coerced into making similar statements and confessing guilt during their detention.

In addition to forced confessions, foreigners arrested in North Korea are often issued harsh sentences then released in a publicity move aimed at appearing merciful. 

Pak said she's hoping something similar might happen for Lim. 

"We know that the sentences are usually very harsh," she said. "We are also aware they are not always carried out to the fullest extent, so there is a little bit of hope and we do hope there is an opportunity for diplomatic discussions to accelerate."

From the television images released by North Korean state media, Pak says she could see the strain on her pastor's face.

"Being months away from family and friends, it does take a toll." 

Members of the Light Presbyterian Church in Mississauga, Ont., will hold a prayer meeting Sunday for their pastor. (CBC)

Lim's relatives and colleagues have said he travelled on Jan. 31 as part of a regular humanitarian mission to North Korea, where he supports a nursing home, a nursery and an orphanage. Pak said Lim has made more than 100 trips to North Korea since 1997, and that his trips were about helping people and were not political.

Charges against him include:

  • Harming the dignity of the supreme leadership. 
  • Trying to use religion to destroy the North Korean system.
  • Disseminating negative propaganda about the country to overseas Koreans.
  • Helping U.S. and South Korean authorities to lure and abduct North Korean citizens, and aiding their programs to assist defectors.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he has "tremendous concern" about the case. Trudeau also said problems with North Korea's judicial system are "well known."

Canada has no diplomatic presence in North Korea but Pak says the fact the new prime minister is commenting on the case has raised hopes among Lim's congregation. 

"We are happy to see that it has gotten his attention," said Pak. "And we're hoping it will lead to accelerated talks."

Everybody knows somebody who has family back in the North still. The war is not that far from our memories.- Lisa Pak, Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim's friend

North Korea has strict rules against any missionary or religious activities it sees as threatening to the supremacy of its regime. Merely leaving a Bible in a public place can lead to arrest and possibly severe punishment.

Both the U.S. and Canadian governments warn against travel to North Korea.

But Pak said Lim was very experienced at travelling in that country. She also said members of her church plan to hold a prayer session in Lim's honour on Sunday. 

"We're just asking the people to recognize that this is a man who would err on the side of caution. We know the risks, but every Korean person is interested in the peninsula.  Everybody knows somebody who has family back in the north still. The war is not that far from our memories."

With files from The Canadian Press

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