Canadian officials meet pastor jailed in North Korea

A Canadian pastor sentenced in North Korea to hard labour for life met with consular officials for the first time since he was detained in February.

Hyeon Soo Lim, 60, was handed the life sentence last week by North Korea’s Supreme Court for what it called crimes against the state.

At a prayer service for the church leader on Sunday evening, pastor Jason Noh announced that two representatives of the Canadian government and a translator met with Mr. Lim on Friday.

“The reverend is in really good spirits,” Mr. Noh told members of the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Mississauga, where Mr. Lim is the lead pastor.

Mr. Noh was one of several speakers at the 1-1/2-hour service, where hundreds of people filled every seat in the vast auditorium. One speaker told the crowd that Mr. Lim is not guilty of any of the charges.

“His only crime was that he loved North Korea too much,” he said.

Lisa Pak, a spokeswoman for the family, told reporters she does not know how long the meeting lasted but she said the officials found Mr. Lim in “relatively good health.”

Members of the church signed petitions on Sunday, calling on the House of Commons and the United Nations to pursue “every means possible” to secure Mr. Lim’s release and get the charges dropped.

“We believe he will be in grave physical danger once he is placed in the labour camp,” says one of the petitions.

Canada has no accredited diplomatic representation in North Korea; consular affairs there are handled from Seoul and by the small Swedish embassy in Pyongyang. Despite numerous efforts to reach Mr. Lim since he was detained, both Canada and Sweden were for months denied the ability to see him, which Ottawa called a violation of its international right to consular access.

That changed this past week, when Canadian officials travelled into North Korea and were able to meet Mr. Lim.

“While we remain disappointed with the life sentence handed to Mr. Lim, Canada is thankful that consular access has finally been granted to Mr. Lim,” said John Babcock, a spokesman for Global Affairs Canada, the new name for Canada’s department of foreign affairs.

“Like Mr. Lim’s family and friends, the Government of Canada remains concerned for his rights and well-being and wishes to see him return to Canada. We continue to work towards a resolution of his case,” Mr. Babcock said.

He declined to answer other questions regarding who was able to meet Mr. Lim, where the meeting took place or whether the Canadian delegation was also able to meet North Korean officials to discuss the pastor’s detention.

Ms. Pak singled out the Swedish embassy for praise, saying officials there “really went out of their way” to help set up the first direct contact between Mr. Lim and the Canadian officials.

The Light Korean Presbyterian Church has been the focus of Mr. Lim’s life since he arrived in Canada in 1986 from South Korea. With 3,000 members, it is one of the largest Korean churches in Canada and has an ambitious humanitarian program aimed at helping ordinary North Koreans.

Since 1997, Mr. Lim has made more than 100 trips to the Hermit Kingdom, where food and fuel shortages are common and where dissent is crushed. During his most recent trip in January to monitor ongoing humanitarian projects, including orphanages and a nursing home, his church and family lost contact with him.

In early March, North Korean authorities confirmed that Mr. Lim had been detained. Friends and family did not hear from him again until July, when he publicly confessed to “indescribable treason” in a televised apology. Mr. Lim said he had written biblical phrases and the name of his Korean-language church on sacks of food as part of a conspiracy to overthrow the North Korean government and establish a religious state.

Such confessions by Western detainees are widely seen as coerced. Religious practice and evangelical activities are banned in North Korea.

Mr. Lim was sentenced last Wednesday after a 90-minute trial. The charges against him included harming the dignity of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and carrying out religious activities that would undermine the North Korean system, tarnishing the regime’s reputation abroad and helping U.S. and South Korean groups assist North Koreans trying to defect.

State prosecutors had sought the death penalty.