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Barton asked, “Did being Canadian save your life?”
“I believe so,” Lim replied.
He was arrested in January 2015 when he travelled to North Korea on a humanitarian mission. He was sentenced in December of that year to a life of hard labour for allegedly trying to overthrow the regime using religious activity.
State prosecutors initially sought the death penalty.
“I didn’t think it would be dangerous,” he said in Korean. (Lim didn’t speak much English during his 2½ years in custody, and answered most interview questions in Korean with the help of a translator.)
Lim, who had made more than 100 visits to North Korea since 1997, said his trips were about helping people and were not political. His church founded a nursing home, a nursery and an orphanage in the northeastern city of Rajin.
Religious practice and evangelical activities are banned in North Korea. Lim said he has “never preached in North Korea,” but admitted his very presence in the hermit kingdom may have been enough to upset the Kim Jong-un regime.
“They wrote down what I needed to say in front of the people, and I followed it …,” he explained.
The pastor said he was never harmed during his 900-plus days he spent in North Korean custody. He said they treated him well despite being forced to dig holes and break coal by hand all day in a labour camp.
“Hard labour — it’s hard,” he said, chuckling.
And it was his Christian faith that saw him through his ongoing battle against overwhelming loneliness and isolation, Lim said.
Canada does not have diplomatic offices in Pyongyang and relies on Sweden to handle consular issues. Still, Canadian diplomats visited Lim at least three times during his detention; Canada’s foreign affairs ministers twice discussed Lim’s case with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho.
The call for action took on fresh urgency in June following the death of Otto Warmbier, an American student who died a week after being released by North Korea in a coma. Lim believed Warmbier’s death “influenced my release.”
On Aug. 9, North Korea released Lim on “sick bail” granted on humanitarian grounds, one day after a six-member Canadian delegation led by Daniel Jean, the prime minister’s national security and intelligence adviser, travelled to Pyongyang.
Lim says he exchanged no money with North Korea for his freedom.
Two weeks after arriving back in Canada and reuniting with his family, Lim believes he now has a better understanding of North Korea’s perspective about the world.
“That’s why they are preparing the nuclear weapons in North Korea. They think: why is the U.S. allowed to have those nuclear weapons, and why not in North Korea?”
The Presbyterian reverend said he feels no anger at the Kim Jong-un regime for sentencing him to prison.
“No, I thanked North Korea. I forgive them,” he said.
Lim said he wouldn’t hesitate to go back to North Korea, if the country allowed him.