SEOUL: A 60-year-old Canadian pastor, jailed for life with hard labour in North Korea, spends eight hours a day, six days a week digging holes in an orchard in a prison camp where he is the sole inmate.
In an interview in Pyongyang with CNN, Hyeon Soo Lim said it had been tough adapting to the physical rigours of his internment following his conviction last month on charges of “subversive” acts against the state.
“I wasn’t originally a labourer, so the labour was hard at first,” said Lim, his head shaven and wearing a grey prison outfit with the number 036.
The interview was conducted in the room of a Pyongyang hotel, where the North Koreans also presented another ethnic Korean prisoner, whom they said was a US citizen arrested for spying in October.
There have been no recent reports either from Pyongyang or Washington of any American having been detained.
But the North Korean side produced a US passport identifying the man as Kim Dong-Chul, 62, who became a naturalised US citizen in 1987.
Kim told CNN he had been living in China near the North Korean border for the past 15 years, commuting regularly to Rason — a North Korean special economic zone.
Spying for SKorea?
In the interview — conducted through an official translator — Kim said he had spied on behalf of “South Korean conservative elements” and taken photos of military secrets.
The foreign ministry in Seoul had no immediate comment on the report.
The interview with Hyeon Soo Lim began with the pastor being briskly marched inside by two uniformed guards holding his arms.
The guards left the room but the South Korean-born Lim, who speaks and understands English, said he had been told to answer all the questions in Korean — suggesting the conversation was being closely monitored.
Lim was detained by North Korean authorities in January last year after arriving from China.
At his sentencing last month, North Korea said he had admitted all charges against him, including “viciously defaming” the North Korean system and its leader, and plotting to overthrow the state.
Lim, a pastor at the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Toronto, was the latest in a series of foreign missionaries to be arrested, deported or jailed for allegedly meddling in state affairs.
Lim said he was required to work eight hours a day, six days a week, digging in the orchard of a labour camp with no other prisoners except himself.
He said he received regular medical care and three meals a day, and was hoping for a Bible which he had requested but still not received.
“I pray every day for the country and the people, I pray for North and South to be reunified, so that a situation like mine won’t happen again,” he said.
The interview lasted almost an hour, after which the guard returned and Lim was marched out.
Canada has protested at the “unduly harsh” sentence and complained that consular officials had been denied access to Lim.
Lim was no stranger to North Korea, having led multiple aid missions to the country, involving work with orphanages, nursing homes and food processing factories.
Pyongyang views foreign missionaries with deep suspicion, though it allows some to undertake humanitarian work.
A number of Christian missionaries — mostly ethnic Koreans who are US citizens — have been arrested in the past, with some of them only allowed to return home after intervention by high-profile US political figures.