Despite a grim account of his imprisonment, the mood was joyful as a Canadian pastor freed from a North Korean prison addressed the congregation at a Toronto-area church Sunday.
During his first public appearance since arriving home, Hyeon Soo Lim described his two years in isolation, where he says he did gruelling physical labour that landed him in hospital on several occasions.
In an English translation of the address he gave in Korean, Lim describes the work he was forced to do and the effects it had on his body.
Lim had been sentenced to life in prison with hard labour for alleged anti-state activities, but was released on what the North Korean government described as “sick bail” last week.
“The mud was so hard it took two days to dig one hole. It was incredibly challenging. My upper body was sweating; my fingers and toes were frostbitten,” he said.
“One year of this difficult labour took a toll on my body and I was admitted to the hospital for two months. There would be three other occasions where I would be admitted to the hospital in serous condition.”
Lim said he often felt lonely and sometimes hopeless during his imprisonment. “It was difficult to see when and how the entire ordeal would end,” he said. A member of the congregation said he told his audience he didn’t know about his release until 15 minutes before it happened.
When Lim arrived at the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Mississauga, Ont., he was greeted by a cheering crowd. Some in the crowd reached out to embrace him as he walked by.
About a half hour later, Lim gave his address in front of a church so full that some people who couldn’t find seats stood in the back.
And although the speech’s contents read as solemn in the English translation, he delivered them energetically. He and the audience laughed as he delivered jokes in Korean that congregants later described as self-deprecating.
“You can see I’ve had a haircut,” he reportedly told the congregation, gesturing to his bald head. He also joked that he’s now an expert on North Korea, explaining that he read more than a hundred books on the country while in prison.
He said he also read the Bible in both English and Korean five times “and memorized over 700 Bible verses.”
Church officials passed out sheet music for a song with lyrics that Lim wrote while he was imprisoned. Congregants were encouraged to sing along to “Forever, Forever Hold Steadfast,” a song about faith.
After the service, Lim told members of the media he was grateful for the support of his congregation, and for the Canadian government officials who secured his release.
“It is a miracle for me to be here today,” he said through a translator.
Lim then greeted members of the congregation, who were eager to speak with him.
Timothy Cho, 22, has been attending services at Light Korean Presbyterian Church since his childhood. He says he was worried the imprisonment would take a significant toll on Lim, but was relieved to see him making the same kinds of jokes he used to make before he left.
“I was amazed to see him,” Cho said. “I don’t think there’s a lot of change, despite his solitary confinement.”