Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim believes he wasn't executed or tortured in North Korea because of Canadian citizenship

Toronto-area Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim speaks to CBC's Rosemary Barton about his life of hard labour in North Korea for allegedly trying to overthrow the regime using religious activity.

Hyeon Soo Lim says he forgives North Korea and wouldn't hesitate to return if permitted

Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim of Mississauga, Ont., says he feels no anger at the Kim Jong-un regime for sentencing him to prison and that he'd go back to North Korea if it allowed him. (Philip Ling/CBC)

​Toronto-area Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim says holding Canadian citizenship was the reason he wasn't executed or tortured during his more than two years of detention in North Korea.

"If I'm just Korean, maybe they kill me," Lim said during an interview with CBC's Rosemary Barton on Saturday. "I'm Canadian so they cannot, because they cannot kill the foreigners."

Barton asked, "Did being Canadian save your life?" 

"I believe so," Lim replied.

A Canadian citizen who emigrated from South Korea in 1986, Lim is a minister at the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Mississauga, Ont.

He was arrested in January 2015 when he travelled to North Korea on a humanitarian mission and sentenced that December to a life of hard labour for allegedly trying to overthrow the regime using religious activity.

State prosecutors initially sought the death penalty.

The 63-year-old acknowledged he went to North Korea even though the Canadian government advised against all travel to that country.

"I didn't think it would be dangerous," he said in Korean. (Lim didn't speak much English during his 2½ years in custody, and answered most interview questions in Korean with the help of a translator.)

Hyeon Soo Lim says holding Canadian citizenship was the reason he wasn't executed or tortured during his more than two years in detention in North Korea. 0:39

Lim, who had made more than 100 visits to North Korea since 1997, said his trips were about helping people and were not political. His church founded a nursing home, a nursery and an orphanage in the northeastern city of Rajin.

Religious practice and evangelical activities are banned in North Korea. Lim said he has "never preached in North Korea," but admitted his very presence in the hermit kingdom may have been enough to upset the Kim Jong-un regime.

Coerced into confessing

Lim said he was coached and coerced into confessing that he travelled under the guise of humanitarian work as part of a "subversive plot" to overthrow the government and set up a "religious state."

Rev. Hyeon Soo Lim describes how he worked eight hours a day, six days a week digging holes in an orchard at a North Korean labour camp. 1:14

"They wrote down what I needed to say in front of the people, and I followed it ...," he explained.

The pastor said he was never harmed during his 900-plus days he spent in North Korean custody. He said they treated him well despite being forced to dig holes and break coal by hand all day in a labour camp.

"Hard labour — it's hard," he said, chuckling.

And it was his Christian faith that saw him through his ongoing battle against overwhelming loneliness and isolation, Lim said.

Rev. Hyeon Soo Lim thanks the Government of Canada for securing his release after more than two years in a North Korean prison. 0:35

While Lim lived under the constant watch of North Korean guards, family members had urged the Canadian government to put pressure on North Korea to secure Lim's release.

Canada does not have diplomatic offices in Pyongyang and relies on Sweden to handle consular issues. Still, Canadian diplomats visited Lim at least three times during his detention; Canada's foreign affairs ministers twice discussed Lim's case with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho.

Lim, who was released Aug. 9 by North Korea, told CBC's Rosemary Barton that his Christian faith saw him through his ordeal. (Jon Castell/CBC)

"I believe the government is working for me," Lim said, of the behind-the-scenes effort by the Trudeau government. "I always hoped to return, but I didn't know when."

The call for action took on fresh urgency in June following the death of Otto Warmbier, an American student who died a week after being released by North Korea in a coma. Lim believed Warmbier's death "influenced my release."

On Aug. 9, North Korea released Lim on "sick bail" granted on humanitarian grounds, one day after a six-member Canadian delegation led by Daniel Jean, the prime minister's national security and intelligence adviser, travelled to Pyongyang.

His release was sudden, receiving only a 15-minute warning that Canadian authorities were coming to get him.

Lim says he exchanged no money with North Korea for his freedom.

North Korea 'threatened' by U.S.

Two weeks after arriving back in Canada and reuniting with his family, Lim believes he now has a better understanding of North Korea's perspective about the world.

"They believe they are weak, and they are threatened by the United States as the U.S. are trying to kill them," Lim explained, when asked what he thinks Canadians should know about North Korea.

"That's why they are preparing the nuclear weapons in North Korea. They think: why is the U.S. allowed to have those nuclear weapons, and why not in North Korea?"

The Presbyterian pastor said he feels no anger at the Kim Jong-un regime for sentencing him to prison.

"No, I thanked North Korea. I forgive them," he said.

Lim said he wouldn't hesitate to go back to North Korea, if the country allowed him.

Watch the full interview:

Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim says his imprisonment in North Korea was spent digging holes and breaking coal in a labour camp. He believes he's alive because he's Canadian. 10:57