Rev Hyeon Soo Lim has worked for decades to provide humanitarian aid to North Korea. He was sentenced on Wednesday (Dec 16) on charges of ‘political terrorism’.
The 60-year-old was jailed after a court hearing that lasted just 90 minutes, during which he was denied independent legal representation.
Rev Lim is senior pastor of the 3,000-member Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Toronto. He has visited North Korea 100 times in the past 20 years to support a nursing home, nursery and orphanage. Release has been highlighting his case as a prisoner of faith since his detention in February.
In common with other church workers who have been arrested, Rev Lim was required to make a lengthy public statement confessing to ‘heinous crimes’.
‘It was clear he was made to read from a prepared statement,’ says Release International Chief Executive Paul Robinson. ‘Who knows what he had had been made to endure beforehand? This was another show trial, and Rev Lim should be released.’
In February 2014, South Korean Baptist Kim Jong Uk was made to read out an almost identical statement. Like Rev Lim, he was made to confess to attempting to turn North Korea into a religious country and to trying to destroy its political system.
The Supreme Court found Kim Jong Uk guilty of spying and attempting to set up an underground church. He too was sentenced to a lifetime of hard labour.
Last year, Release gave warning of a pending clampdown on Christian workers in North Korea. This followed a damning UN report on human rights abuses in the hermit kingdom.
Eric Foley of VOM Korea, a Release partner, warned at the time that Christian missionaries could be targeted as scapegoats. ‘We are now seeing that happen before our eyes,’ says Paul Robinson of Release.
In March 2015, a Presbyterian pastor and a South Korean businessman were sentenced to life imprisonment on spying charges.
Rev Kim Kuk-gi, 61, and Choe Chun-gil, 56, were accused of being ‘heinous terrorists’ who were spying for South Korea. Pastor Kim was also charged with spreading religious propaganda from an underground church in Dandong.
Then in May, North Korea arrested an American tourist for leaving a Bible in his hotel room. Jeffrey Fowle was released after diplomatic intervention from Sweden.
Some others have also been set free after back-channel discussions. Kenneth Bae, an American evangelical, was released in November. He had also been found guilty of trying to bring down the government by promoting religious activities.
After last year’s damning UN human rights report, North Korea accused Christian missionaries of subversion, terrorism and even human trafficking. ‘North Korea is choosing to blame Christian missionaries for its human rights problems and internal difficulties,’ said Eric Foley.
These spying and trafficking claims against church workers are dismissed by Paul Robinson of Release: ‘Instead of addressing its human rights abuses, North Korea is throwing the book at Christians who are providing relief aid.
‘In a country where a form of emperor worship is mandatory, the authorities regard Christianity as a threat to the state, and are accusing Christians of spying.’
According to the US State Department, some 200,000 North Koreans are being held in labour camps, many for offences related to religion. Up to 30,000 Christians are behind bars, believes Release partner VOM Korea.
Both the UK and the US have called on Pyongyang to close its prison camps. But Pyongyang continues to deny their existence.
Through its international network of missions Release International serves persecuted Christians in more than 30 countries around the world, by: supporting pastors and Christian prisoners, and their families; supplying Christian literature and Bibles; and working for justice.