Freed Canadian pastor recounts hardships of life in North Korean prison

Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim arrives at his church in Mississauga, Canada on  August 13, 2017 after being freed from a North Korean labor camp last week.

Story highlights

  • North Korea pastor speaks to his church after being released from North Korean prison last week
  • Hyeon Soo Lim recalls the years of isolation and back-breaking labor

(CNN)The Canadian pastor who released from a North Korean prison camp has recounted the privations he suffered during two and a half years of hard labor.

Wearing a dark suit, with his hair cropped short, Hyeon Soo Lim told his Ontario church Sunday that it was "difficult to see when and how the entire ordeal would end," according to a copy of his address obtained by CNN.
    Lim was detained in February 2015 and "released on sick bail" last week, according to state-run news agency KCNA. Lim had been serving a life sentence of hard labor after being convicted of crimes against the state.
    The 62-year-old's health had deteriorated while in North Korean custody and the pastor has experienced "dramatic" weight loss, according to family spokeswoman Lisa Pak.
    2016: Canadian pastor detained in North Korea
    North Korea Canadian pastor imprisoned Ripley segment_00005827


      2016: Canadian pastor detained in North Korea


    2016: Canadian pastor detained in North Korea 02:32

    Two years, seven months of solitude

    Lim told his congregation at the Light Presbyterian Church in Missassauga, Ontario, of the overwhelming loneliness he felt during his time in North Korea detention.
    "From the first day of my detainment until the day I was released, I ate 2,757 meals in isolation by myself," he said. "It was difficult to see when and how the entire ordeal would end."
    Lim said he was also forced to endure back-breaking labor, six days a week, including digging square meter holes for planting trees.
    "The mud was so hard that it took two days to dig one hole," he said.
    "It was incredibly challenging. My upper body was sweating; my fingers and toes were frostbitten."
    He also said that he was forced to break up frozen coal inside a coal storage facility. The summer months were just as painful, as he was required to work outside in the scorching heat.
    The extreme conditions took a severe toll on his health, and he lost almost a third of his body weight. He said he was admitted to hospital four times during his time in prison.
    Lim veered from his prepared remarks several times while addressing the congregation, telling them that he didn't know he was going to be released until 15 minutes beforehand, and that he was certain that his Canadian citizenship played a huge role in the commutation of his initial sentence -- from death to hard labor -- and also in his release.
    Lim is greeted by members of his congregation at the Light Korean Presbyterian Church.

    Hard labor

    In a January 2016 interview with CNN in Pyongyang, Lim said he was the sole prisoner in a labor camp. He told CNN he received regular medical care and three meals per day.
    Lim was arrested by North Korean authorities while on a humanitarian mission in Rajin, North Korea, a family spokesperson said at the time. He was acting on behalf of the Light Korean Presbyterian Church, which he had led since 1986.
    According to his family, Lim has made more than 100 trips to North Korea since 1997, and his humanitarian efforts have included the founding by his church of a nursery, orphanage, and nursing home in the northeastern city of Rajin.
    Earlier this month, Lim's son James received word that a plane carrying senior Canadian officials, a medical doctor, and a letter to North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un was dispatched to Pyongyang "at the last minute," Pak said.

    Ratcheted tensions

    Lim's release comes at a time of heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula.
    The US and North Korea have been engaged in increasingly threatening rhetoric during the past week.
    North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has finished reviewing a plan to fire four missiles into the water off Guam, and has opted to wait to see what the "foolish Yankees" do next.
    The comments, published in state media Tuesday, came hours after US Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned that if North Korea fired on US territory it would be "game on."

    Left behind

    At least three US citizens remain in North Korean custody.
    Businessman Kim Dong-chul was detained in October 2015 and is serving a 10-year sentence for espionage.
    Kim Sang-duk, an academic also known as Tony Kim, was detained in April and is accused of "hostile criminal acts," and researcher Kim Hak-song was detained in May and is also accused of "hostile acts."