North Korea jails Canadian pastor for life with hard labour

Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim speaks during a news conference in Pyongyang in a July 2015 file photo.
Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim speaks during a news conference in Pyongyang in a July 2015 file photo.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - A North Korean court sentenced a Canadian pastor to life imprisonment with hard labour, while rejecting a prosecution call for the death penalty after his conviction on sedition charges, the North's official KCNA news agency reported Wednesday.

South Korean-born Hyeon Soo Lim, 60, a pastor at the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Toronto, is the latest in a series of foreign missionaries to be arrested, deported or jailed for allegedly meddling in state affairs.

"The defendant Lim admitted all the charges against him including viciously defaming our system and our supreme dignity as well as plotting to overthrow our state," KCNA said.

According to KCNA, the prosecutor had asked the Supreme Court to hand down a death sentence, arguing that the pastor's crimes merited "the sternest punishment".

Ottawa hit out at the punishment, saying they "remained concerned for his rights and well-being".

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was “very concerned”.

“We have tremendous concern about it,” Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa. “The issues of North Korea’s governance and judicial system are well-known and we are very concerned about someone being sentenced to life in North Korea.”

Said Canada's foreign ministry in a statement: "Canada is dismayed at the unduly harsh sentence given to Mr Lim by a North Korean court, particularly given his age and fragile health."

The statement said Canadian consular officials have been denied access to Lim, describing it as "a serious violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations".

Lim was detained by North Korean authorities in January after arriving from China. The specific actions that resulted in the sedition allegations have never been detailed.

According to his church in Toronto, he was on a purely humanitarian mission and had visited the North on numerous occasions to support work with orphanages and nursing homes.

In August, the North released a video showing Lim attending a Sunday service at Pyongyang's Pongsu Church and confessing to various charges in an address to a small congregation that included a number of foreigners.

"I committed the gravest crime of insulting and defaming the top dignity and the leadership of the republic," Lim said in the video.

Detained foreigners are habitually required to make public and officially scripted pronouncements of their guilt in order to help secure their eventual release.

"The trial demonstrated again what kind of miserable fate awaits people like Lim - the followers of the US and South Korean regimes that ceaselessly try to annihilate our socialist system and defame the supreme dignity of our sacred republic," KCNA said.

Pyongyang views foreign missionaries with deep suspicion, though it allows some to undertake humanitarian work.

A number of Christian missionaries - mostly ethnic Koreans who are US citizens - have been arrested in the past, with some of them only allowed to return home after intervention by high-profile US political figures.

Although religious freedom is enshrined in the North's constitution, it does not exist in practice and religious activities are restricted to officially recognised groups linked to the government.

Foreign missionaries arrested in North Korea can find themselves facing punishing jail sentences, or used by Pyongyang as leverage to extract concessions or high-profile visits from foreign powers to ensure their release.

In November last year, Kenneth Bae - a US citizen who, like Lim, was born in South Korea - was released two years after being sentenced to 15 years' hard labour.

Bae, who had been convicted of plotting to overthrow the North Korean regime, was released along with another American detainee as the result of a secret mission to Pyongyang by US intelligence chief James Clapper.

In March last year, an elderly Australian missionary, John Short, was deported after being held for 13 days.

Short signed a detailed "confession" and apology after his arrest for distributing religious material in Pyongyang.

A South Korean missionary arrested in the North in October 2013, Kim Jeong-Wook, is currently serving hard labour for life for allegedly spying and operating an underground church.

Lim's sentence was announced just days after high-level talks between the two Koreas aimed at improving cross-border ties broke up in mutual recrimination.

It also came a week after the North came under stinging criticism for the second consecutive year in the UN Security Council over its human rights record.

The council meeting was chaired by the US, whose ambassador Samantha Power said Pyongyang's rights abuses represented "a level of horror unrivalled in the world".