Rev. Hyeon Soo Lim
North Korea sentences Canadian pastor to life in prison
01:47 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

NEW: Sentencing was "shocking and exhausting for the family," spokeswoman says

North Korean state news: The Rev. Hyeon Soo Lim convicted for "subversive plots and activities"

Lim's family says he traveled to North Korea in January on a routine humanitarian trip

CNN  — 

North Korea sentenced a Canadian pastor Wednesday to life in prison “for subversive plots and activities,” according to its state news agency.

The official news agency KCNA reported that the Rev. Hyeon Soo Lim “confessed to all heinous crimes he had committed.”

The report accused Lim of having “committed anti-DPRK religious activities, conducted false propaganda among overseas Koreans, and took active part in the operation of the U.S. and (a South Korean) conservative group to lure and abduct DPRK citizens … in their programs for ‘aiding defectors from the north.’ “

North Korea already had detained him for 10 months.

Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs expressed dismay at what it called “the unduly harsh sentence given to Mr. Lim by a North Korean court, particularly given his age and fragile health.”

Lim’s trial was the first time Canadian officials had seen the 60-year-old since he was taken into custody in February, the department said in a statement.

It said the North Korean government’s refusal to let Canadian representatives “verify his health and well-being” in person represents “a serious violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and the right of states to have consular access to their citizens.”

Looking for diplomatic assistance

The Canadian government said it wants Lim’s rights to be respected and for him to return home.

It declined to offer any more information “in the interest of Mr. Lim’s case.”

Family spokeswoman Lisa Pak said the sentencing was “shocking and exhausting for the family,” and it asked North Korea to relent.

“We entreat the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to remember Reverend Lim’s heart for the people of the DPRK. The family and the church hope for a demonstration of mercy and compassion. Finally, we ask the global community for your continued support in prayers,” Pak said.

The sentencing allows diplomats to take further action, Pak said.

“Despite the severity (of the sentence), we do have hope because it means that the possibility of diplomatic talks for his release can move forward rather than just stay in limbo,” Pak said.

“We’re still asking people not to give up. We’re asking people to keep praying and we’re asking the government not give up,” added Pak, who’s a leader at Lim’s church.

Family: Lim went to North Korea on aid trip

A Canadian citizen who emigrated from South Korea in 1986, Lim is a minister at the 3,000-member Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Toronto. He has spent a lot of time in North Korea, taking more than 100 trips there, according to his family.

Lim’s most recent visit came January 30 when he traveled there via China on what a family spokeswoman characterized as a routine humanitarian trip.

He planned to tend to aid projects established by his church in the northeastern city of Rajin, North Korea, including an orphanage, nursery and nursing home.

“It is this tremendous love for the people of the DPRK that motivated Mr. Lim to travel (there),” Pak said.

Coerced confessions?

But North Korea painted a different picture of his motivation.

In July, Lim was brought out a news conference where he read from a statement, confessing to activities aimed at toppling the North Korean government, according to KCNA.

“The purpose that I traveled about several parts of the country on the pretext of ‘aid’ was to build a base to overthrow the system of the country and create a religious state, taking advantage of the policies of the U.S. and South Korean authorities,” Lim said, according to The Associated Press, which was present for the news conference. AP reported the press conference was in front of a packed room of Pyongyang-based journalists.

In August, North Korea released footage of Lim confessing again – this time at a Pyongyang church.

“My biggest crime is my act of blindness in severely insulting the highest dignity and system, the DPRK,” Lim is shown saying to a church congregation while dressed in a dark suit and tie. The video was posted on Uriminzokkiri, a state-run propaganda website.

Canadian pastor detained in North Korea confesses to crimes

Westerners held previously in North Korea have said their confessions were given under pressure from the state.

In April, U.S. citizen Sandra Suh was released from detention in the country and deported to the United States after admitting to “plot-breeding and propaganda against the DPRK,” according to KCNA.

State-run churches

The August 2 service where Lim made his second confession took place in Pyongyang’s Bongsu Church. This Protestant church is one of several places of worship in the North Korean capital, though it is known to be used for propaganda reasons.

Some in the United States and elsewhere say North Korea’s handful of state-run churches are fronts to give the appearance of religious freedom.

Critics accuse North Korean authorities of widespread religious persecution and other rights violations.

Pyongyang hasn’t traditionally embraced organized religion, at least those with outside roots.

The communist government is officially atheist. In the 1970s, it proudly declared itself “free from religious superstitions,” according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry.

Behind the scenes

Canada has limited diplomatic relations with the reclusive country.

But behind the scenes, the government waged an aggressive campaign to win Lim’s freedom, according to a source with knowledge of the proceedings.

Two delegations from the Canadian Embassy in Seoul held back-channel meetings with North Korean officials in Pyongyang, most recently after the Canadian Thanksgiving in October.

And Canadian consular officials spoke informally with North Korean delegates on the sidelines of U.N. meetings, the source said.

But no one from the Canadian government managed to meet Lim personally “despite repeated requests,” according to the Department of Foreign Affairs

In November, following the victory of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party, a new set of state officials in Canada were charged with bringing Lim home.

Canada’s election gives hope to family of Hyeon Soo Lim

CNN’s Dave Shortell reported from New York and Vivian Kam from Hong Kong. CNN’s Greg Botelho wrote from Atlanta, and Michael Martinez contributed from Los Angeles.