PYONGYANG, Korea, Democratic People’s Republic Of – North Korea’s Supreme Court sentenced a Canadian pastor to life in prison with hard labour on Wednesday for what it called crimes against the state.
Hyeon Soo Lim, who pastors the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Toronto, was given the sentence after a 90-minute trial. He had been in detention since February.
Lim entered and left the court in handcuffs flanked by two public security officers in uniform. The handcuffs were removed in court during the trial. He kept his head bowed most of the time and answered questions in a subdued tone.
The crimes he was charged with included harming the dignity of the supreme leadership, trying to use religion to destroy the North Korean system, disseminating negative propaganda about the North to the overseas Koreans, and helping U.S. and the South Korean authorities lure and abduct North Korean citizens, along with aiding their programs to assist defectors from the North.
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State prosecutors sought the death penalty.
Lim’s lawyer asked the court to take into account the fact that Lim is a fellow Korean and that he had frankly confessed to everything the prosecution had brought up. Lim pleaded to be given a chance and said if the court gave him a chance he would not do anything bad again.
Lim had earlier appeared at a news conference organized by North Korean authorities in Pyongyang in July and admitted to plotting to overthrow the North Korean state, but other foreigners detained in North Korea and then released have said they were coerced into making similar statements and confessing guilt during their detention.
Lim’s relatives and colleagues have said he travelled on Jan. 31 as part of a regular humanitarian mission to North Korea where he supports a nursing home, a nursery and an orphanage. They said Lim, who is in his early 60s, has made more than 100 trips to North Korea since 1997 and that his trips were about helping people and were not political.
A spokeswoman for the Canadian Global Affairs Department had no immediate information about his trial and sentence.
Lisa Pak, a spokeswoman for the family, has said Lim had no problems on his previous trips to North Korea.
She confirmed in March that Lim had been detained in the country.
One of the projects Lim spearheaded “aims to help the people there live sustainably,” she said at the time, adding “they can grow their own food now, so they don’t always have to receive aid.”
The previous Conservative government had said consular officials were in contact with family members and providing assistance, but that the process was difficult as Canada has no diplomatic presence in North Korea.
Last month, Lim’s family issued a statement saying it hoped the new Liberal government would be able to secure his release.
“It is our hope that Prime Minister Trudeau, Foreign Minister Stephane Dion and the newly elected government continues to hold this case in the highest priority, doing what is necessary to secure the safe and speedy return of Reverend Lim to his family and community,” the statement said.
The family said it was Lim’s compassion for the people of North Korea that motivated him to travel to there in support of many humanitarian aid projects that he had initiated.
Lim started the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Mississauga, Ont., nearly three decades ago, shortly after he immigrated from South Korea. He grew the congregation from about a dozen people in 1986 to more than 3,000 members today, Pak said. He also runs a smaller church in downtown Toronto that caters to young people.
North Korea has very strict rules against any missionary or religious activities that it sees as threatening the supremacy of its ruling regime. Merely leaving a Bible in a public place can lead to arrest and possibly severe punishment.
Both the Canadian and U.S. governments warn against travel to North Korea.
Last year, the North released Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American missionary who was convicted of “anti-state” crimes and had been serving a 15-year sentence.
Bae, whose detention received worldwide attention, suffered medical issues in detention. He was freed along with one other American detainee after a secret mission to the reclusive communist country by James Clapper, the top U.S. intelligence official. He is reportedly planning a book about his 2-year-ordeal in detention.
An Australian missionary detained for spreading Christianity was deported last year after he apologized for anti-state religious acts and requested forgiveness.
– With files from The Canadian Press
© 2015 The Canadian Press