Hyeon Soo Lim, pastor of the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Toronto, was sentenced to life in prison with hard labor by North Korea's Supreme Court after a 90-minute trial Wednesday regarding what was referenced "crimes against the state." Lim's relatives and colleagues said he travelled on a humanitarian mission Jan. 31 to North Korea where he supports a nursing home, a nursery and an orphanage.
Lim was charged with harming the dignity of the supreme leadership, trying to use religion to destroy the North Korean system, disseminating negative propaganda about the North to the overseas Koreans, and helping U.S. and the South Korean authorities lure and abduct North Korean citizens, along with aiding their programs to assist defectors from the North.
Family members of Lim, who is in his early 60s, said he has made 100-plus trips to North Korea since 1997, and that his trips were about helping people, and were not political, as reported by WJAX-TV.
He was held in detention since February. Lim entered and left the court in handcuffs flanked by two public security officers, according to Associated Press. State prosecutors sought the death penalty.
Lim's lawyer asked the court to consider Lim as a fellow Korean, as well as the fact he confessed to everything the prosecution had brought up. Lim pleaded to be given a chance.
Lim had appeared at a news conference organized by North Korean authorities in Pyongyang in July and admitted to plotting to overthrow the North Korean state, as reported by CBS News in Toronto. However, other foreigners detained in North Korea and then released have said they were coerced into making similar statements and confessing guilt during their detention.
Global Affairs Canada representatives said they were dismayed at the "unduly harsh sentence," particularly given Lim's "age and fragile health."
North Korea has strict rules against any missionary or religious activities perceived as threatening the supremacy of its ruling regime. Leaving a Bible in a public place can lead to arrest and possibly severe punishment.
Both U.S. and Canadian government officials warn against travel to North Korea, due to the number of missionaries who have been detained or deported for trying to spread Christianity.
Lim was born in South Korea and grew up in Seoul. His family attended a devout Christian church that produced numerous pastors and missionaries. His father, who was born in North Korea, held an office job and his mother worked at a family supermarket.
Under Lim's leadership at the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Mississauga, Ontario, the congregation grew from a dozen people in 1986 to more than 3,000 members in 2015, according to online sources. It operates from a complex that includes a 1,773 seat sanctuary; an education wing of numerous classrooms; a 5,260 square foot fellowship hall with a full commercial kitchen; a 6,650 square foot gymnasium and a 248 seat chapel. A second, affiliated church was started in downtown Toronto.