SEOUL – A 60-year-old Canadian pastor, jailed for life with hard labor in North Korea, says he spends his days digging holes in an orchard in a prison camp where he is the sole inmate.
In an interview in Pyongyang with CNN, Hyeon Soo Lim said it had been tough adapting to the physical rigors of his internment, following his conviction last month on charges of “subversive” acts against the state.
“I wasn’t originally a laborer, so the labor was hard at first,” said Lim, his head shaven and wearing a grey prison outfit with the number 036.
The interview was conducted in the room of a Pyongyang hotel and began with Lim being briskly marched inside by two uniformed guards holding his arms.
The guards left the room, but the South Korean-born Lim, who speaks and understands English, said he had been told to answer all the questions in Korean — suggesting the conversation was being closely monitored.
Lim was detained by North Korean authorities in January last year after arriving from China.
At his sentencing last month, North Korea said he had admitted all charges against him, including “viciously defaming” the North Korean system and its leader, and plotting to overthrow the state.
A pastor at the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Toronto, he was the latest in a series of foreign missionaries to be arrested, deported or jailed for allegedly meddling in state affairs.
Lim said he was required to work eight hours a day, six days a week, digging in the orchard of a labor camp with no other prisoners except himself.
He said he received regular medical care and three meals a day, and was hoping for a bible which he had requested but still not received.
“I pray every day for the country and the people, I pray for North and South to be reunified, so that a situation like mine won’t happen again,” he said.
The interview lasted close to an hour, after which the guard returned and Lim was marched out.
Canada has protested the “unduly harsh” sentence and complained that consular officials had been denied access to Lim.
Lim was no stranger to North Korea, having led multiple aid missions to the country, involving work with orphanage houses, nursing homes and food processing factories.
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 U.S. citizens — have been arrested in the past, with some of them only allowed to return home after intervention by high-profile U.S. political figures.