Released on ‘sick bail for humanitarian reasons’
By Michael Ireland, Chief Correspondent for the ASSIST News Service (www.assistnews.net)
PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA (ANS – Aug. 9, 2017) — A Canadian pastor who was sentenced to a life-term of hard labor in North Korea for “crimes against the state” in December 2015 has been released, the country’s official news agency says.
A statement confirmed 62-year-old Hyeon Soo Lim had been released on humanitarian grounds, according to a report on the BBC website.
The BBC says the Canadian government on Tuesday confirmed a delegation had arrived in Pyongyang to discuss Mr Lim’s case. The release comes as tensions mount between the US and Pyongyang.
The Toronto-based pastor, who is of South Korean origin, publically confessed to plotting to overthrow the North Korean government and set up a “religious state” during his 90-minute trial in December, 2015.
Mr Lim’s family said he had travelled to Pyongyang in January 2015 to build a nursing home, nursery and orphanage. His church confirmed he had visited the country more than 100 times since 1997.
The BBC explained that because religious activity is banned in North Korea, the authorities periodically detain foreigners for religious or missionary activity, and similar cases have seen staged public confessions from prisoners.
In an interview with CNN in January 2016, Mr Lim described his hard labor sentence. He said he had to dig holes eight hours a day in a camp where he did not see any other detainees.
In January US student Otto Warmbier died six days after being sent home on humanitarian grounds from North Korean imprisonment. Warmbier returned to the US in a coma with serious brain damage.
The BBC says that following the American’s death, Mr Lim’s family increased their calls for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to “change strategy” to help secure his release.
Will Ripley, writing for CNN, says Hyeon Soo Lim, North Korea’s longest-held western prisoner in decades, was “released on sick bail” Wednesday by the country’s top court for “humanitarian” reasons, according to the state-run news agency KCNA.
CNN said Lim’s son, James Lim, received word over the weekend that a plane carrying senior Canadian officials, a medical doctor, and a letter to North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un was dispatched to Pyongyang “at the last minute,” according to family spokeswoman Lisa Pak. The plane landed in the North Korean capital Monday.
The 62-year-old Lim’s health has deteriorated while in North Korean custody and the pastor has experienced “dramatic” weight loss, Pak said.
Lim’s release comes amid heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula after US President Donald Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury” on Tuesday and Pyongyang said it was considering a military strike against the US territory of Guam.
Previous medical release
Lim’s family had stepped up calls for his release since the death of University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier in June.
Warmbier was on a sightseeing tour of North Korea when he was detained in early 2016 and later charged with attempting to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel. He died just six days after his release from North Korea due to a brain injury sustained while in custody. He was in a vegetative state when he returned home to his family near Cincinnati, Ohio.
The US State Department has since announced a travel ban that will take effect next month, preventing nearly all US citizens from visiting North Korea, with the exception of journalists and humanitarian workers.
Illness in captivity
In letters to family, friends, and members of his church in Mississauga, Ontario, Lim has complained of stomach pain and high blood pressure.
They say his family has not been allowed to see him during his imprisonment, but have been able to send him letters and blood pressure medication via the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, which often serves as an intermediary for prisoners from nations with no formal diplomatic ties to North Korea.
“We are relieved to hear that Rev. Lim is on his way home to finally reunite with his family and meet his grand-daughter for the first time,” Pak said in statement to CNN.
“There is a long way to go in terms of Reverend Lim’s healing. Therefore, in the meantime we ask the media for privacy as he reconnects with his loved ones and receives medical attention.”
The family expressed gratitude to the Canadian, North Korean and Swedish governments. “We want to thank the global community for the continued prayers and support and we also ask that the world does not forget the people of North Korea,” the statement read.
Lim was detained in February 2015 while on a humanitarian mission in Rajin, North Korea, a family spokesperson said at the time. He was acting on behalf of the Light Korean Presbyterian Church, which he had led since 1986.
According to his family, Lim has made more than 100 trips to North Korea since 1997, and his humanitarian efforts have included the founding by his church of a nursery, orphanage, and nursing home in the northeastern city of Rajin.
In a January 2016 interview with CNN in Pyongyang — his first conversation with foreign media — the Canadian said he was the sole prisoner in a labor camp, digging holes for eight hours a day, six days a week. At the time, he said he received regular medical care and three meals per day.
Left behind, Still in captivity
At least three US citizens remain in North Korean custody.
They are businessman Kim Dong-chul, who was detained in October 2015 and is serving a 10-year sentence for espionage, Kim Sang-duk, an academic also known as Tony Kim, who was detained in April and is accused of “hostile criminal acts,” and researcher Kim Hak-son.
Meanwhile, another North Korean man, Kim Seung-mo, 61, was arrested in early June on “spying” charges after meeting Christian relatives in China.
Kim’s release now comes one day after a special envoy of the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, had arrived in Pyongyang.
Background to Pastor Lim’s Case
According to a report carried by CharismaNews.com, which previously appeared on originally appeared on World Watch Monitor (www.worldwatchminitor.org), Lim’s church lost contact with him in Jan. 2015; it was thought that he had been quarantined as part of the government’s attempt to prevent the spread of Ebola. In Feb. 2015, it was revealed that Lim had been arrested and charged with slandering the North Korean leadership and its system of government. He was accused of trying to overthrow the country and establish a religious state.
During a press conference in July 2015, Lim was forced to read out a public confession. Usually North Korea pronounces a sentence within weeks after such a “confession,” but this time it took five months.
“Most likely, diplomatic efforts to secure Lim’s release failed,” World Watch Monitor was told in December 2015. The source, who cannot be named for security reasons, said North Korea had probably hoped to get more out of the negotiations. “Whatever that ‘more’ is, we don’t know. Pastors like Lim, who have seen so much of how North Korea treats its prisoners, cannot easily be released. Unless Canada makes an offer North Korea can’t refuse, I don’t see Lim returning home anytime soon,” the source said at the time.
Lim was involved in humanitarian aid and not with the “underground” church. It is believed his arrest and sentence would have had no impact on this church network, “but a case like this does outrage the North Korean government,” the source said. “North Korean Christians could be dealt with even more harshly if they are exposed.”
Since Lim’s arrest, North Korea has applied a stricter visa policy. Last month, after Warmbier’s death, the U.S. ordered that no U.S. citizen is to be allowed to visit North Korea.
Previous Case of Life Sentence
In May 2014, North Korea sentenced South Korean pastor Kim Jong-Wook to a life of hard labor. As a missionary, Kim operated from the Chinese border city, Dandong, where he provided shelter, food and other aid to North Korean refugees who crossed the border seeking relief from the famine in their country. Kim also taught the refugees about the Bible.
North Korean agents infiltrated his network and convinced him to visit their country, which he did on Oct. 8, 2013. Kim was expecting to find out what had happened to some refugees with whom he had lost contact, but instead he was arrested, interrogated and possibly tortured.
In Feb. 2014, Kim told assembled North Korean television cameras he had spied for the South Korean government, had given money to North Koreans to set up 500 “underground” churches and attempted to overthrow the regime. After a trial in May 2014, North Korea’s state media reported that prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Kim, but the court imposed the life sentence after the pastor had “sincerely repented.”
Enemies of the State
To understand North Korea, it must be remembered that it links Christianity with South Korea and the United States, considered to be enemies of the state. Ever since North Korean Christians fled communist oppression and made a run for the South during the Korean War in the early 1950s, they have been seen as traitors. After the war, tens of thousands of Christians were arrested, forced into hard labor or put to death. A small remnant of the Christians who stayed went underground to live their faith in secret.
The successful arrests of Kim and other missionaries—such as Korean-American Kenneth Bae and Australian John Short, both of whom were later released—are part of the reason why North Korea has been extending its crackdown on Christian activities in its own country and the Chinese border area.
Observers believe that Christians make the North Korean authorities feel insecure by—allegedly—spying for the enemy, meeting in secret and not revering their government enough. Comparisons are sometimes made with the Jews and what they represented in Nazi Germany—the Christians in Kim Jong-Un’s regime are seen as disloyal, which is not just a transgression of the law, but also a sin of the gravest kind that deserves severe punishment.
Horrors of Camp 25
“I was locked up for years in Camp 25 near Chongjin [a camp for political prisoners where many Christians are thought to be held],” said one North Korean refugee. “I will never forget the prisoners who were too weak to continue their work. The guards would pick them up and put them on an automatic belt that threw them into a large oven while they were still alive.”
Despite all the arrests, the North Korean government has not won its “war” against Christianity. The church has survived almost 70 years of severe persecution. According to Open Doors, an expert source on North Korean Christianity, there are about 300,000 Christians in North Korea, which has for the last 11 years topped its World Watch List of the most repressive places to live if you are a Christian.
How harsh are North Korean prisons?
In analysis on the BBC website, their correspondent says there is no doubt that North Korea treats its prisoners harshly.
“When outsiders are arrested, they are often sentenced to hard labor, and that’s exactly what it is – compounded by the severe oppression of isolation and helplessness,” the reporter writes.
The BBC knows of one former prisoner who was broken psychologically by his treatment. Many years later, he remains too traumatized to talk about it easily.
But others have described their experience in detail, the BBC said.
In December 2012, North Korea charged missionary Kenneth Bae with acts “hostile to the republic.” He had visited the country many times, but was stopped on this occasion, and a hard-drive with Christian material was discovered.
For this “crime,” he was sentenced to 15 years hard labor, and only released when his health deteriorated seriously – just as seems to have happened in the case of Otto Warmbier.
After his release, Mr Bae wrote a memoir, “Not Forgotten: The True Story of My Imprisonment in North Korea” in which he said that he was interrogated from 8:00 a.m. in the morning until 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. at night every day for the first four weeks of his imprisonment.
Under this pressure, Bae wrote the hundreds of pages of confessions his interrogators demanded. He said he would work six days a week on a farm, “carrying rock, shovelling coal.” His daily routine was to wake at 6:00 a.m., eat breakfast, pray, and then be taken to perform the hard labor from 08:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m.
Under this regime, Bae lost a lot of weight – an estimated 60lbs (27kg) in the 735 days of his captivity. As his weight dropped, his health increasingly failed and he was repeatedly taken for medical treatment. Apart from the physical toll, there was a psychological pain, a feeling of isolation.
North Korea profile – Overview:
In a country profile of North Korea, compiled by BBC Monitoring, the BBC says for decades North Korea has been one of the world’s most secretive societies. It is one of the few countries still under nominally communist rule.
North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have exacerbated its rigidly maintained isolation from the rest of the world.
The country emerged in 1948 amid the chaos following the end of World War II. Its history is dominated by its Great Leader, Kim Il-sung, who shaped political affairs for almost half a century.
After the Korean War, Kim Il-sung introduced the personal philosophy of Juche, or self-reliance, which became a guiding light for North Korea’s development. Kim Il-sung died in 1994, but the post of president has been assigned “eternally” to him.
At a glance
- Politics: A family dynasty heads a secretive, communist regime which tolerates no dissent
- Economy: North Korea’s command economy is dilapidated, hit by natural disasters, poor planning and a failure to modernize
- International: The armistice of 1953 ended armed conflict on the Korean peninsula, but the two Koreas are technically still at war; tensions have been exacerbated in recent decades by North Korea’s nuclear ambitions
The BBC says decades of this rigid, state-controlled system have led to stagnation and a leadership dependent on the cult of personality.
Aid agencies have estimated that up to two million people have died since the mid-1990s because of acute food shortages caused by natural disasters and economic mismanagement. The country relies on foreign food aid.
The totalitarian state also stands accused of systematic human rights abuses. Amnesty International estimates that hundreds of thousands of people are held in detention facilities, in which it says that torture is rampant and execution commonplace.
Pyongyang has accused successive South Korean governments of being US “puppets,” but South Korean President Kim Dae-jung’s visit in 2000 signaled a thaw in relations.
Seoul’s “sunshine policy” towards the North aimed to encourage change through dialogue and aid, but was dealt a blow in 2002 by Pyongyang’s decision to reactivate a nuclear reactor and to expel international inspectors.
In October, 2006 North Korea said it had successfully tested a nuclear weapon, spreading alarm throughout the region.
Intensive diplomatic efforts were mounted to rein in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, finally yielding in 2007 under which Pyongyang agreed to shut down its main nuclear reactor in return for aid and diplomatic concessions. But negotiations stalled as North Korea accused its negotiating partners – the US, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia – of failing to meet agreed obligations.
Tensions with the rest of the world grew steadily again, especially after the new South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, ended his predecessor’s “sunshine policy.”
In April 2009 North Korea walked out of international talks aimed at ending its nuclear activities, and carried out its second underground nuclear test the following month.
Kim Jong-il’s successor in December 2011, his third son Kim Jong-un, continued the dynastic policy of mixed signals. He agreed to suspend long-range missile tests in order to receive US food aid in February 2012, but soon after carried out a “rocket-launched satellite” launch, although this failed.
A more successful December 2012 satellite launch – not long after a new South Korean-US missile deal – suggested Pyongyang was developing rockets capable of hitting the US mainland. In February 2013, it performed a long-promised third nuclear test in February 2013, prompting further UN Security Council sanctions.
Following further missile tests in 2014, North Korea announced that it would restart all facilities at its main Yongbyon nuclear complex, including a reactor mothballed in 2007, while also offering to restart talks if UN sanctions are dropped.
The current South Korean president, Park Geun-hye, continues to maintain a tough line towards the Pyongyang regime.
North Korea has traditionally enjoyed the support of its powerful neighbor China, but in recent years Chinese leaders seem increasingly frustrated and embarrassed by Pyongyang’s intransigence over its nuclear program.
North Korea maintains one of the world’s largest standing armies and militarism pervades everyday life. But standards of training, discipline and equipment in the force are reported to be low.
Photo captions: 1) Hyeon Soo Lim was sentenced after a 90-minute trial at the North Korean Supreme Court. 2) A photo provided by the Light Korean Presbyterian Church on March 5, 2015 shows Reverend Hyeon Soo Lim at an agricultural project in North Korea, with the faces of North Korean workers digitally blocked by the church to hide their identities. (Light Presbyterian Church/Handout via Reuters). 3) Pastor Lim preaching in Canada before his arrest in North Korea. 4) Michael Ireland.
About the Writer: Michael Ireland is a volunteer internet journalist serving as Chief Correspondent for the ASSIST News Service, as well as an Ordained Minister, and an award-winning local cable-TV program host/producer who has served with ASSIST Ministries and written for ANS since its beginning in 1989. He has reported for ANS from Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Israel, Jordan, China, and Russia. You may follow Michael on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Michael-Ireland-Media-Missionary-234951783610/ and on Twitter at @Michael_ASSIST. Please consider helping Michael cover his expenses in bringing news of the Persecuted Church, by logging-on to: https://actintl.givingfuel.com/ireland-michael
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