The large congregation of Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Toronto, Canada was ecstatic on Sunday (13 August) in welcoming home their Senior Pastor, Hyeon Soo Lim, held for more than two years of a life sentence in a North Korean labour camp. The church was also crowded with media personnel recording the significant and almost unexpected return.
Sam Shim, operations manager at Lim’s church said, “Everyone was excited when we heard the news that he was freed… There was crying, joyful crying.”
Looking happy and healthy, Lim told his congregation about his experiences in the labour camp. Overwhelming loneliness was the emotion he remembers most.
“From the first day of my detainment [late January 2015] to the day I was released, I ate 2,757 meals in isolation by myself. It was difficult to see when and how the entire ordeal would end,” Lim said through his English interpreter.
“During the winter, I had to dig holes that measured one-metre wide and one-metre deep. The ground was frozen. 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. I also worked inside a coal storage facility, breaking apart coal,” he said. “In the spring and summer, I worked outside, eight hours a day, in the scorching sun, under the constant watch of two guards.”
Lim reported that the hard labour took a toll on his body, causing him to lose 50lbs (23kg) and be hospitalised four times – the first time for two months.
‘Not one day of gloom’
Lim said he knew people were praying for him and that daily the feeling of loneliness and isolation turned to “peaceful solitude with God”.
“While I was labouring, I prayed without ceasing. I did not have a day of gloom,” he said. “My moments of discouragement, resentment and grumbling turned into courage, joy and thanksgiving.”
He said that, after almost a year, friends from his church in Canada sent him a Korean and an English Bible. Remarkably, in a country ranked the hardest place to practise Christianity, the guards allowed him to keep them. He said he read through the Korean Bible four times and the English Bible once, and memorised more than 700 Bible verses.
Every Sunday was a rest day, so he said he spent his 130 Sundays worshipping – for eight hours every week. During that time, he also wrote five new hymns in Korean, some of which were sung by his congregation in Toronto on Sunday, with tears streaming down their faces.
Lisa Pak, an assistant to the pastor, said, “Pastor Lim was not allowed to write anything during his imprisonment, so he worked hard at memorising details, thus the awareness of how many meals he ate alone and how many Sundays he worshipped God alone.”
The whole process started in 1997 when the church that Lim pastored became aware of the hunger and lack of food in North Korea. With the Canadian government’s awareness, the church began a ministry that grew to millions of dollars of charitable investment in North Korea. They created orphanages, homes for senior citizens, noodle and tofu factories, as well as farming and educational programmes.
Lim visited the country more than 110 times in supervising this process. He said he is still unaware of why, suddenly, in January 2015 he was arrested, charged with “defaming” Kim Jong-un – which he denies – and sentenced to life in labour camp.
“He loved North Korea,” said a co-pastor, adding that the congregation was “shocked” when Lim was detained.
Lim said he is also unaware of the reason he was suddenly released on “sick bail” a week ago today. Sweden’s diplomats helped facilitate his release, as Canada does not have an embassy in North Korea. Lim said he only knew 15 minutes before his release that he was going home.
Lisa Pak, a spokeswoman for the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Toronto, said the church has no plans to continue its work in North Korea. “We did a full stop on all Korean activity and always had intended it to be a gift to the North Korean people. We have no plans on returning there,” she said.
The trip home
Lim flew out of Pyongyang on a Canadian diplomatic plane with the Canadian government contingent that came to negotiate his release. They landed first in Japan and then went on to the Sheraton Hotel in Guam, before arriving at a Canadian military base east of Toronto early on Saturday morning (12 August). He seemed surprised that, despite a rigorous examination by a Canadian doctor sent with the government team, no diagnosable ailment could be found. Lim said he is convinced prayer from churches and concerned Christians around the globe made all the difference in his case.
Looking healthy and happy, he alighted the plane unaided to hugs from his wife and son and one-year-old granddaughter, whom he had not yet seen. Lim’s son said, “The first place he wanted to stop was Tim Hortons for a coffee and a doughnut.” (Tim Hortons is Canada best known coffee shop.)
The reception at the church the next day was one of overwhelming and contagious joy and celebration. Lim said he was proud to be a Canadian and opened with deep thanks for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, negotiator Daniel Jean, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and the personnel of Global Affairs Canada.
The Canadian federal government said it is celebrating Lim’s “long-awaited” return.
“Canada has been actively engaged on Mr. Lim’s case at all levels, and we will continue to support him and his family now that he has returned,” a statement from Global Affairs Canada read.