BEIJING: North Korea has sentenced a Canadian pastor to life imprisonment, the latest in a series of high-profile arrests and jailings of foreign missionaries accused of meddling in state affairs.
South Korean-born Hyeon Soo Lim, pastor at the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Toronto, was sentenced by the Supreme Court following a brief trial, China’s official Xinhua news agency reported from Pyongyang.
The court found Lim guilty of joining the United States and South Korea in fomenting an anti-North Korean human rights “racket” and fabricating and circulating propaganda tarnishing the North’s image.
He was also accused of funding and helping defectors wanting to flee North Korea.
According to the court, Lim confessed to all the charges and showed “deep remorse,” Xinhua said.
North Korean authorities detained Lim in January after arriving from China.
According to his church in Toronto, he was on a purely humanitarian mission and had visited the North on numerous occasions to support work with orphanages and nursing homes.
In August the North released a video showing Lim attending a Sunday service at Pyongyang’s Pongsu Church and confessing to various charges in an address to a small congregation that included a number of foreigners.
“I committed the gravest crime of insulting and defaming the top dignity and the leadership of the republic,” Lim said in the video.
Detained foreigners are habitually required to make public and officially scripted pronouncements of their guilt in order to help secure their eventual release.
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.
Although religious freedom is enshrined in the North’s constitution, it does not exist in practice and religious activities are restricted to officially recognized groups linked to the government.
Foreign missionaries arrested in North Korea can find themselves facing punishing jail sentences, or used by Pyongyang as leverage to extract concessions or high-profile visits to ensure their release.
In November last year Kenneth Bae—a US citizen who, like Lim, was born in South Korea—was released two years after being sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor.
Bae, who had been convicted of plotting to overthrow the North Korean regime, was released along with another American detainee as the result of a secret mission to Pyongyang by US intelligence chief James Clapper.
In March last year an elderly Australian missionary, John Short, was deported after being held for 13 days.
Short signed a detailed “confession” and apology after his arrest for distributing religious material in the North’s capital.
A South Korean missionary arrested in the North in October 2013, Kim Jeong-Wook, is currently serving hard labor for life for allegedly spying and operating an underground church.
Lim’s sentence was announced just days after high-level talks between the two Koreas aimed at improving cross-border ties broke up in mutual recrimination.
It also came a week after the North came under stinging criticism for the second consecutive year in the UN Security Council over its human rights record.
The council meeting was chaired by the United States, whose ambassador Samantha Power said Pyongyang’s rights abuses represented “a level of horror unrivaled in the world.”