About the Author
Justin Rohrlich is an Emmy Award winning journalist with a keen interest in North Korean affairs
Lim Hyeon-soo doesn’t come off as the type of person that would try to overthrow Kim Jong Un. Yet, that’s exactly what North Korea charged the 62-year-old pastor with trying to do.
Lim, a South Korean-born Canadian citizen who vanished on a routine trip to the DPRK in 2015, spent more than two-and-a-half years locked up in North Korea, becoming the country’s longest-held western prisoner since the Korean War.
Now enjoying his fourth month back home in the Toronto suburbs, Lim recently sat down at his church for a two-hour interview with NK News, sharing new details about his ordeal, including the circumstances surrounding his arrest, his life in captivity, and how he was targeted by North Korea’s security services.
I. SETTING THE TRAP
It was late January 2015, and Lim, then 60, was preparing to travel to North Korea. On this particular trip, he was going to be checking up on the church’s existing humanitarian projects, which included an orphanage, a nursery, and a senior citizens’ home.
The parishioners at Lim’s Light Presbyterian Church, a 3000-member congregation within spitting distance of Pearson International Airport, weren’t worried—he’d visited the DPRK more than 100 times since 1997.
Lim says he wasn’t planning to go to Pyongyang—he’d be in and around Rajin, up north—but the officials with whom he normally dealt seemed unusually eager to get him there.
They sent repeated requests through Lim’s network in the Chinese border region, saying they wanted help developing the country’s tourism industry. Lim twice declined, saying his schedule was booked solid, but when the North Koreans came back a third time, he agreed to spend one full day in the capital.
He’d visited the DPRK more than 100 times since 1997
The whole thing seemed a bit odd to Lim, who had never worked in the travel business before, though he didn’t think much more of it. He entered North Korea through a land crossing with China on January 30, and spent the night in Rajin. The next day, Lim traveled to Pyongyang, accompanied by a government escort he hadn’t met on any of his previous trips.
The first few times Lim had gone to Pyongyang, he stayed at the first-class Koryo Hotel, located in the city center. On subsequent trips, Lim normally stayed at the Haebangsan, a lower-end property frequented by Chinese business travelers. This time, Lim’s minder took him to a small, 12-room hotel he had never heard of before. Lim, who could not recall the property’s exact name or location, did remember that it was owned by ethnic Japanese.
After Lim got to his room, his escort excused himself to make a phone call. A short time later, roughly a half-dozen North Korean security agents entered the room, blindfolded him, and hustled him downstairs. He was bundled into a car and driven to a detention center elsewhere in the city, where investigators began questioning him about a sermon he gave at a Dallas, Texas church.
Lim says he always asked that people not upload any of his more sensitive homilies to the internet, especially if they made explicit mention of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, or Kim Jong Un.
In this one, Lim told parishioners that people shouldn’t worship the Kim family as gods, regardless of what the North Korean state would have the populace believe. Somehow, Lim says, the offending sermon found its way online.
The investigators combed through the Light Presbyterian website, reading and watching the last five years of Lim’s sermons and speeches. They were particularly interested in a lecture he had given, which was more than three hours long.
“Why do you preach for so long?” they asked Lim, who tried in vain to explain the difference between a sermon and a lecture to his interrogators. They watched it again and again, to make sure they hadn’t missed anything important.
If there were other inmates present at the detention center, Lim, who was identified in North Korean media as Rim Hyon Su, never saw or heard them. When he wasn’t being questioned, Lim was able to read—the only books his jailers gave him access to were propaganda tracts by or about Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, and Lim read more than a hundred of them. It was pure propaganda, but Lim says he gained a deeper understanding of the North Korean mindset this way.
Lim was accused of having “defiled the DPRK’s dignity and system”
At the end of July—six months into his confinement—Lim’s jailers brought him to the People’s Palace of Culture in Pyongyang so he could deliver a public “confession,” in which he admitted committing “subversive acts against [the DPRK] in an attempt to build a religious state as a henchman of the U.S. and puppet south Korea.”
Lim’s “confession” in July 2015
In a statement carried by North Korean state media, Lim was accused of having “defiled the DPRK’s dignity and system, referring to the cause of immortalizing the leader and inheritance of the revolutionary cause of Juche as ‘hereditary’ and ‘personality cult,’ in the presence of tens of thousands of compatriots in Canada and over 20 regions.”
It said Lim met North Koreans and “egged them on to rise up against the government,” and that he “deliberately inscribed the cross, the name of church and passages of the Bible on grain sacks offered to the DPRK.”
A few days later, Lim was made to confess in front of an audience at Pyongyang’s state-operated Pongsu Church. (“They are buildings, but they are different from the churches that we understand and know to be churches,” Lim says.)
In a video of the event released by North Korea, Lim said he had been “brainwashed” by anti-communist propaganda and “extreme religious education.”
“The worst crime I committed was to rashly defame and insult the highest dignity and the system of the republic,” he told the congregation.
Lim delivered a sermon at Pyongyang’s Pongsu Church
In December 2015, after 10 months in detention and a 90-minute trial, North Korea’s supreme court sentenced Lim to life with hard labor. (Prosecutors initially sought the death penalty.) He left the court in handcuffs and was driven to a prison 30 minutes northeast of Pyongyang.
“The whole prison, it was just me and around forty guards to keep me, and around ten people to make food and take care of the prison,” Lim says.
Lim was made to confess in front of an audience at Pyongyang’s state-operated Pongsu Church
Lim was placed in solitary confinement, in a cell measuring roughly 15×15. It had a window with bars, beyond which Lim could see an electric fence to prevent escapes. He neither saw nor heard any other prisoners, was not allowed to read, watch TV, or listen to the radio, and the guards were under strict orders not to converse with him.
Meals consisted of rice, which Lim said was unwashed and had stones in it; the occasional potato; one egg a week; and salted cabbage. Surveillance cameras watched his every move, even in the bathroom.
Days began at 6 am, with cleaning followed by breakfast. Lim then worked from 8 am to 6 pm, with a 30-minute break every two hours during which he was allowed to sit down, but nothing more. Toward the beginning of his imprisonment, Lim, exhausted, attempted to lay down on a break. A voice immediately came over a loudspeaker, commanding: “GET UP!”
During winter, Lim dug holes in the ground and broke apart frozen coal by hand. There was farming in the spring and summer; Lim remembers planting corn, potatoes, hot peppers, and beans. If his work wasn’t deemed up to par, the guards simply tacked on another hour to the working day.
The North Koreans did not subject him to any physical abuse, but he was often demeaned verbally, “like the way you talk down to slaves,” Lim said. His cell was infested with cockroaches, mosquitoes, and flies, and he contracted dysentery at one point, which lasted for three months.
Since Canada does not have an embassy in Pyongyang, Sweden is the protecting power and takes consular responsibility for its citizens. The North Koreans allowed Lim to write home every three months and the letters would then be sent to Canada by the Swedes, who had promised to visit Lim in prison once a month.
However, the North Koreans only allowed the Swedish representatives access to Lim twice in 31 months. Still, they were able to get Lim a couple of letters from his wife, Geum, and a year later, his Bible, which he was permitted to read from 8-10 pm. The family sent all the medication they thought Lim might need for his high blood pressure; some reached him, some didn’t.
Although there was an absolute prohibition on conversation between the guards and Lim, a few of the older officers occasionally bent the rules.
One asked about life in Canada, and if Lim owned a car. Another was having trouble connecting with his 14-year-old son and asked Lim for help. The two had a “mini-counseling session,” and the guard later told Lim his relationship with his son had in fact started to improve thanks to his advice.
Another told Lim, “If it weren’t for this incident, I wouldn’t mind being friends with you.”
In June 2017, approximately two-and-a-half years after Lim was arrested, North Korea released American college student Otto Warmbier, who was serving a 15-year sentence of hard labor for attempting to steal a political sign from his hotel in Pyongyang. The 21-year-old Warmbier was returned to America in a coma and died six days later.
Lim’s family was now gravely concerned about Lim’s well-being and called on Ottawa to step up its efforts in freeing him, family spokesperson Lisa Pak told Reuters, saying there had been no noticeable movement in the case since two Canadian officials were allowed to make the second of two visits to Lim that past December.
The following month, North Korean officials allowed a meeting “in the humanitarian spirit” between Lim and Swedish officials. In the meanwhile, North Korea was conducting near-weekly ballistic missile tests, sharply escalating tensions between Pyongyang and Washington.
On August 9, about an hour into Lim’s regular workday, he was summoned by the prison warden. A guard blindfolded Lim, who was then placed in the backseat of a car and driven to the Pothonggang Hotel in Pyongyang. Lim was escorted into a conference room inside, where his blindfold was removed.
His cell was infested with cockroaches, mosquitoes, and flies, and he contracted dysentery at one point
There were six North Koreans standing on one side of the room and on the other, six Canadians: two military doctors, two department heads from Global Affairs Canada, a member of the Canadian Forces, and Daniel Jean, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s national security adviser.
Unbeknownst to Lim, two Royal Canadian Air Force CC-144 Challengers had secretly flown to Yokota Airbase, an American military installation in Fussa, Japan, after which one of them had ferried the Canadian delegation to Pyongyang to retrieve Lim.
The North Korean side announced they were granting “sick bail” to Lim, who had been hospitalized four times during his imprisonment for high blood pressure and gastrointestinal issues, but was in no way gravely ill. After two years, six months, and nine days, Lim was finally going home.
“He wasn’t really sick, but…” Lisa Pak told NK News.
“I am not sick,” says Lim.
Lim said he wasn’t given any final instructions by the North Koreans, nothing about what to say or not to say to the media. The delegation and Lim were then driven to Pyongyang Sunan International Airport, where the Royal Canadian Air Force plane was waiting.
The operation was meant to be kept confidential until Lim was safely out of the country, but the North Koreans posted “Yokota” on the departures board and a photograph found its way to NK News, which appeared to confirm Lim’s impending return.
Lim was flown to Yokota, then an American base in Guam, where he spent the night in a hotel and ate a steak. From Guam, Lim was flown to the Marshall Islands, then on to Hawaii, where he was able to call his family.
From Hawaii, Lim was flown to Vancouver, then to Canadian Forces Base Trenton, in Ontario. His family picked him up; they stopped at Tim Horton’s (a popular Canadian chain similar to Dunkin’ Donuts) for coffee and a donut on the two-hour drive back to the Toronto suburbs.
Lim still doesn’t know exactly why he was released. In December 2016, according to the CBC, North Korea had offered to release Lim on the condition that Canada, which suspended diplomatic relations with the DPRK in 2010, once again station a full-time ambassador or envoy in Pyongyang, which is said to have brought negotiations to a halt.
Eight months later, the North Koreans decided they were willing to talk again, and contacted the Canadian government, said the CBC’s source, who had direct knowledge of the negotiations. The source said the North Koreans had previously brought up the cost of Lim’s medical care, on which they claimed to have already spent many thousands of dollars.
North Korea hasn’t again requested his assistance, but Lim still hopes to help. However, even if they’d let him in, Lim has no plans to go back anytime soon.
“Not this year,” he says with a laugh.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA