Hyeon Soo Lim spent two and a half years imprisoned in North Korea, enduring extreme hardships and the threat of death, the Canadian pastor revealed Thursday in an op-ed in Toronto Life.
“I yearned for home,” he wrote. Lim visited North Korea more than 100 times without encountering any problems, but everything fell apart when North Korean officials discovered a sermon critical of the Kim regime that he delivered in Texas. In an instant, Lim ceased to be a volunteer who had dedicated himself to helping the North Korean people and became an enemy of the state accused of insulting the dignity of the so-called supreme leader.
“I went to my room to sleep,” he explained. “As I lay down, I heard the door open. In rushed six men I’d never seen before in plainclothes, all armed with handguns. One of them grabbed me, pulled me to my feet and pushed me out the door.”
Lim was arrested in 2015 for telling a congregation that people should not worship the Kim family as gods, a message not well received in North Korea.
The pastor was taken to a cell at a detention center in Pyongyang. He spent nearly a year there, in a room with no bed and a mold-covered toilet. The food was equally miserable. “It was almost always rice smeared with dirt and containing bits of gravel I’d have to pick out,” Lim wrote. He was given hot water only once a week to bathe himself. He tried to distract himself from the misery and boredom with thoughts of his family and his wife Keum Young, who he met in Bible study years earlier.
He experienced daily interrogations until he finally confessed to all charges.
In court, a legal charade, Lim was first sentenced to death, but the judge downgraded the punishment, sentencing him instead to a life of a servitude in a North Korean labor camp.
He was first taken to a grey facility where he finally got a bed, but it was not a happy moment. “I hadn’t slept on a bed in almost a year, but my excitement was short-lived,” the pastor wrote. “The mattress was infested with cockroaches that would crawl over me in the night.”
“You’re going to die here!” the guards would scream in his face each day.
Lim never saw another prisoner in his entire time in captivity. Most of his 919 days in prison were spent in isolation, although he did occasionally interact with some of the friendlier guards. The dilapidated facility smelled of gas due to a leak, the lights flickered on and off and the tap water wasn’t drinkable.
He was tasked with digging holes for an apple orchard. “Sometimes, I’d be given a shovel. Otherwise, I dug with my hands. In winter, the ground froze, but I was expected to dig anyway,” he wrote. “There were days when my fingers spasmed so severely that I couldn’t make a fist.” In addition to digging holes, he also broke apart frozen coal.
Despite the pressures, Lim maintained his faith in God. The intense physical labor failed to break his spirit, but it did break his body.
“My body began to deteriorate. In winter, my toes turned purple from the cold, even when I layered on socks and wrapped my feet in plastic bags in a failed attempt to keep them warm. My hands grew wizened and decrepit. Some evenings, I couldn’t move from stiffness,” he said. Lim was eventually taken to a hospital, where he was given expired pain medications and most of the medical equipment did not work correctly. He stayed there for two months before he was sent back to the labor camp.
Lim was ultimately released last summer on “sick bail,” according to North Korea, which failed to recognize some of the diplomatic efforts to secure his release. “It’s a miracle for me to be here today,” Lim told The Guardian after he was released.
When he returned to his church, his congregation both cheered and cried.
“I would return to North Korea if I could—the people there still need so much help—but I’m not sure their government would ever allow it, and I think there are safer ways for me to do my work,” Lim wrote, adding that he will focus on missionary work in the U.S.
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