Early release from life sentence in North Korean jail a “God thing”
BY CRAIG MACARTNEY
Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim beside his wife Geum Young Lim at the Light Presbyterian Church, Mississauga, Ont., after his release from North Korea in August. PHOTO: REUTERS / MARK BLINCH
News of Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim’s release from a North Korean jail came with little warning last August, but the sudden happy ending to his life sentence was actually long expected by his 3,000-member church.
Light Presbyterian Church in Mississauga, Ont., has spent more than 20 years doing humanitarian missions in North Korea. During that time the church provided millions in aid, started farming projects and built factories, a nursing home, orphanage and school.
Lim, a native of South Korea, had personally visited North Korea more than a hundred times and never had difficulty navigating the nation’s complex political climate. That is what made his disappearance in early 2015 so concerning.
"He was arrested for preaching that you should not serve Kim Jong-il or Kim Jong-un as gods, and you need to believe in God," explains Lisa Pak, spokesperson for Lim’s family throughout his ordeal. "With the change of regime [after the death of Kim Jong-il], they were hypersensitive."
Lim was always very careful not to openly preach in the reclusive nation. Even outside North Korea the pastor was careful what he said publicly. When he spoke in churches and mentioned North Korea, Lim asked them not to post the message. Unfortunately, one sermon at an American church found its way online and upset the North Korean government.
Lim was eventually sentenced to death for his "crimes against the State," but the sentence was commuted to a life of hard labour. Yet throughout his captivity, Lim’s church maintained a sense of peace, believing God had told them he was okay and would return home safely.
"There was never a doubt that he would one day be released," says Lim’s son James. "It was a matter of when, not if. There were obviously a lot of very difficult chapters. When there was no movement, those are the times where one wonders, ‘God, what are you doing?’ Never doubting, but still there were difficult moments. Overall there was a great sense of control that we felt from day one."
"WHEN THERE WAS NO MOVEMENT, THOSE ARE THE TIMES WHERE ONE WONDERS, ‘GOD, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?’"
One low point came six months into Lim’s detention. The North Korean government held a press conference where Lim read a statement confessing to crimes – everything from sending food aid stamped with Bible verses to being a CIA and South Korean spy, and trying to abduct North Korean citizens.
"When it first came out, the confession floored everybody," Pak says. "We hadn’t seen or heard from him in months. Then the first time we hear from him, he’s confessing all these things. But when you see the videos, you can tell by the cadence in his voice and the words he uses that it was scripted."
Experts who study North Korea say detainees usually must sign forced confessions before being released. The government uses confessions as propaganda to reinforce the notion the United States and South Korea are bent on destroying the Korean people, and their only protection is the might of the Kim regime.
Lim’s confession was on a Thursday, but by their Sunday service Pak says the church was engaging their faith with fresh resolve.
"That’s where the prayer movement started. By the first Sunday people were very much thinking we need to hunker down, pray and trust God."
Church members celebrate God’s answer to prayer with Rev. Kim’s safe return. PHOTO: REUTERS / MARK BLINCH
Dealing with constant media enquiries was taxing and sometimes discouraging for Pak. Yet she got other calls from Christians that made a world of difference.
"I got media requests from all over the world, but then I had people who would call from Colorado or Nova Scotia saying, ‘Just give me your prayer requests. We don’t have to know anything, just know we are praying.’ In the midst of all the chaos, tears just well up and you know you are not alone. I think the church really felt that."
"You really begin to understand to the core of your being how powerful the community of saints is, and how necessary it is to pray or reach out to the community next door and say, ‘We’re here and we’re praying for you.’"
Despite the fact their services are held in Korean, at times they had believers from other churches join their services wanting to worship with them as a show of solidarity.
James says the support throughout the ordeal from strangers was overwhelming. "We knew the church would always support us as a family, but the response of people who knew my father’s case, the outpourings of love and prayer, have been a huge encouragement."
On August 9, 2017, after two and a half years, North Korea released Lim on what they called "sick bail." The church was excited at this response to their prayers, but cautious, waiting to see Lim safely on Canadian soil.
Two months earlier North Korea released American detainee Otto Warmbier, who then died six days after arriving in the U.S. Warmbier’s fate made them double down in prayer.
Amazingly, when Lim’s airplane touched down, he emerged in relatively good health.
"We firmly believe the prayers of God’s people made a difference in Reverend Lim’s release," says David Guretzki, executive vice-president of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. "Reverend Lim’s release is a modern-day reminder to the Church that no human authorities are able to prevent the gospel from going forward."
"The way Reverend Lim describes it is this: Of course, he doesn’t discount the human effort or the negotiations that took place," Pak says. "Human effort can go so far, but at the end of the day, it was one of those impossible situations where it was a God thing."
Members of Light Presbyterian Church believed God had told them Lim would be released, but they also felt God had their pastor there for a reason.
"The attention Reverend Lim’s case received globally was significant," says Guretzki. He attended the church’s celebration service upon Lim’s release and says it felt historic. "Individuals, media and governments were following his case. They watched his release and have heard testimony of how he lived, trusted and responded to God and to his captors.
"IN THE MIDST OF ALL THE CHAOS, TEARS JUST WELL UP AND YOU KNOW YOU ARE NOT ALONE. I THINK THE CHURCH REALLY FELT THAT."
"As I listened to Reverend Lim’s testimony," says Guretzki, "his love for the Korean people and his dedication to mission, I could only sense God was perhaps going to take something meant for evil and use it for good. Reverend Lim’s testimony will inspire many about what it means for the Church to repay evil with good, curses with blessing."
James adds his father’s case was very publicly displayed on North Korean television. He says this may have provided a powerful platform for the Christian faith to reach North Koreans. "It gave visibility to those around him who may not have been followers of Christ. Even those in the underground church were likely encouraged by it. If any of that did in fact happen, I think that would be reason enough for his detainment."
When Lim walked into his church the first Sunday after his release, Pak says there was pandemonium. "It was like the World Cup and Super Bowl put together. It was cheering, people were crying. It was insane."
Pak is proud of how the church held onto what they felt God was saying, but she is equally proud of the faithfulness and support from the Body of Christ. "When we couldn’t hold on, that’s when our brothers and sisters in Christ who prayed for the perseverance of our faith gave us the strength to be unified. That’s what we’re proud of. It’s not just us. We’re proud of everyone who brought us along and stood with us."
Looking back at the rollercoaster of emotion and faithfulness of God, Pak says it has changed her personally. "It makes you realize how small you are, and on the flip side how loved you are and how detail-oriented God is. It was a very humbling and empowering experience.
"I have this phrase now – ‘Well played, God.’ I will stop pretending to know when something is going to happen or to force God’s hand. This has really taught me to trust Him because God is the one who moves hearts. I feel more inspired to teach the next generation that when the fight comes, you have to be well equipped, and God will keep you along the way."
Craig Macartney is an Ottawa-based writer. Read more articles like this by subscribing to Faith Today.