Politics·Q & A

Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim on being imprisoned by North Korea — and why he might go back

Toronto-area Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim, recently released after being arrested in North Korea in 2015 during a humanitarian mission, spoke with CBC's Rosemary Barton on Saturday on how he was treated, why he was released and what he hopes for the future.

'I forgive them, and I love them,' says recently released Toronto-area pastor

Hyeon Soo Lim of Mississauga, Ont., who was released earlier in August, speaks to CBC's Rosemary Barton about his detention in North Korea. (Jon Castell/CBC)

Toronto-area Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim, recently released after being arrested in North Korea in 2015 during a humanitarian mission, spoke with CBC's Rosemary Barton on Saturday on how he was treated, why he was released and what he hopes for the future.

Here's the full Q & A:

Rosemary Barton: How are you?

Hyeon Soo Lim: I'm very good.

Barton: How are you feeling?

Lim: Feeling is very peaceful, comfortable.

Barton: And physically, how are you doing?

Lim: It's fine. I had a check with my family doctors two days ago. Everything is fine.

On travelling to North Korea

Barton: Why did you put yourself in danger? You knew going to North Korea was a risk. The Canadian government has a travel advisory that says don't go to North Korea. Why did put yourself in danger?

Lim: [As interpreted] Canada didn't tell me not to go to North Korea. I didn't think it would be dangerous

Barton: You confessed to writing biblical phrases on some of the things you were bringing in. You said that confession was coerced, forced from you. How did they force that out of you?

Lim: [As interpreted] They wrote down what I needed to say in front of the people and I followed it. I did what I was told and obeyed the law as it is their law, despite doing nothing wrong and therefore, not feeling guilty.

Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim arrives at his church in Mississauga, Ont., a day after returning to Canada. He was detained in North Korea for more than two years. 0:43

Barton: Did they threaten to hurt you if you didn't do it?

Lim: No.

Barton: Did they ever hurt you?

Lim: No.

Barton: You knew though that proselytizing -- preaching -- was illegal. Were you doing that? Were you preaching? Were you proselytizing?

Lim: [As interpreted] I've never preached in North Korea. The sermon I preached in the United States was posted on the Internet.

Barton: But do you think your presence as a reverend was viewed as trying to influence people in North Korea?

Lim: [As interpreted] Yes, it was in my mind.

Barton: And yet you went anyway?

Lim: [As interpreted] I am very sure the nation appreciated my support, and I am very sure there will be one day they will truly understand the support I've provided.

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

On being imprisoned

Barton: You were in prison for two years, seven months?

Lim: Yeah.

Barton: How did they treat you?

Lim: [As interpreted] They tried very hard to treat me well.

Barton: But?

Lim: [As interpreted] Labour is labour. It was difficult. [English] Hard labour, it's hard.

Barton: Can you describe what a day was like for you, a typical day?

Lim: During the winter, I was digging in the frozen mountains to make an orchard. I dug 50 holes. The first time is very hard for me, because I never did labour. After two months, my weight was reduced by 23 kilograms. I cannot breathe and I cannot raised my hand, so I asked to go to the hospital. They gave permission for two months, so I restored in the hospital.

Barton: You talked about, in your sermon when you came back, overwhelming loneliness. Describe that to me. What does that feel like?

Lim: Everybody's my enemy, not my friend. For 24 hours, they watched video camera -- three cameras -- to me in a small room, a very small washroom. Even the washroom had cameras. The army keep guard on me, two guards every two hours. Never freedom.

Barton: And people always watching you?

Lim: Always, 24 hours. When I go sleeping, they're watching me. … After one month, I'm used to it. I pray every time. I learned in front of God — God knows everything, the same thing. Every time I have to pray. The Bible verse, the meditation, through that kind of quiet time, I overcome every day. The Bible said: "Do not worry about tomorrow." So I never think about tomorrow.

Barton: Did you surprise yourself with your inner strength? Did it surprise you? You were able to find hope and be strong?

Lim: Yeah. I surprised myself! (Laughs.)

Rev. Hyeon Soo Lim explains how North Korean guards monitored him 24 hours a day while in detention. 0:49

On his release

Barton: Did you have hope you'd be released? Or did you have a moment where you gave up hope?

Lim: [As interpreted] I always hoped to return, but I didn't know specifically when.

Barton: You had visits, consular visits?

Lim: Yes.

Barton: What did you think, that the government was trying? What did you think was happening behind the scenes?

Lim: I believe the government is working for me. But the North Korean government was against Canadian government, because Canadian government followed the United States, they believed. So their perspective of the United States and Canada is the same. They never released me. [As interpreted] North Korea never thought of releasing me. They always told me I had to live here for 15 years.

Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim's family speaks about his return home on Saturday after Canadian officials secured his release from detention in North Korea 0:33

Barton: So why did you think you were released? Why do you really think you were released?

Lim: [As interpreted] I'm unsure. But I got the news when I was released from North Korea that Otto Warmbier died. So I think that has influenced my release.

Barton: Was any money paid for your release?

Lim: No. Never.

Barton: And not for the hospitalization either?

Lim: Hospital, no.

Barton: You said you got 15 minutes notice (before you were released). What did you do when they told you?

Lim: I was surprised!

Barton: Did you cry?

Lim: No cry, no cry. But at the time I think about, this is God's best time. I only believe that because I never depend on the human being, I was only waiting for God's time.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland says she's relieved Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim is coming home from North Korea. 1:30

Barton: Do you think that God wanted you to go through this?

Lim: Yeah, I had never experienced North Koreans, their life. [As interpreted] Experience it myself and putting myself in North Korea to actually experiencing their living, I think that's part of God's will.

Barton: How do you feel about North Korea now? Are you angry?

Lim: No, never.

Barton: That's surprising, I would be angry.

Lim: [As interpreted] I thanked North Korea. I forgive them, and I love them. And I believe this was a discipline from God as I learned so much through this experience.

Barton: A discipline from God?

Lim: Yeah. (Laughs.)

Barton: How did it change you?

Lim: [As interpreted] I served the church. However, through this experience, I realized how I'm the sinner in front of God, and through his experience I will glorify God and serve God more sincerely.

On returning to North Korea

Barton: Will you go back to North Korea?

Lim: I'm praying now. I'm not sure now. Some day (if I get) invited North Korea again, I will go.

Barton: You wouldn't hesitate?

Lim: No hesitate. But I want to follow the government laws, the policy. If government (says) no, then I don't go.

On being a Canadian citizen

Barton: Do you think being Canadian helped get you released?

Lim: Of course. If I'm just Korean, maybe they kill me. Because my crime is too big (of a) crime in North Korea. But I'm Canadian, so they cannot... [As interpreted] because they cannot kill the foreigners.

Barton: Did being Canadian save your life?

Lim: Oh yeah. I believe so.

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

On his family

Barton: You saw your wife first. What was that like?

Lim: It was overwhelming experience. My wife, I missed her so much.

Barton: Do you regret putting her and your son through that?

Lim: [As interpreted] After returning, I realized that my wife was also strengthened. And after returning, I realized how everything turned out into a good. When I was in prison, I also thought of dying; however, I didn't fear for death as we all could meet in the heaven.

Barton: But you probably thought about how sad she would be and how sad she was.

Lim: [As interpreted] Yeah, so that hurt my heart.

On the current situation in North Korea

Barton: What would you like Canadians to know about North Korea? Because if this was an experience to strengthen you, it's also a moment to bring some attention to North Korea? What would you like Canadians to know?

Lim: [As interpreted] They believe they are weak, and they are threatened by the United States, that the U.S. are trying to kill them. That's why they are preparing nuclear weapons and arming themselves. So they are thinking: why is only the U.S. allowed to have those nuclear weapons, and why not in North Korea?

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

On his future

Barton: What do you want to do now, now that you're back and have freedom?

Lim: I want to have vacation with my family for one month. And then I come to church. I want to concentrate on the mission work.… A lot of the vision God gave to me when I'm in jail for 2.5 years…. Bible study and disciple training. A lot of North Koreans escaped from North Korea, so they're scattered all over the world now, even in Canada. I want to help them. We have the prayer meetings; there's a big prayer movement in Canada and South Korea. A lot of things that I'm planning.

Barton: Thank you, nice to meet you, and good luck.

Lim: I really appreciate Prime Minister Trudeau, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, national security adviser Daniel Jean -- he's a very nice man, and lots of the Ottawa staff members. They reported to my family on my situation every week, so, I really thank you.

Barton: Good to meet you. I've talked about you for a very long time, so it's good to meet you. Thank you very much.

Lim: Thank you.

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