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North Korea sentences Canadian pastor to life in prison

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.


Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim (C) enters North Korea's top court in Pyongyang on Dec. 16, 2015. The court sentenced him to life in prison with hard labor for what it claimed to be anti-state acts. (Credit: AP Images/Kyodo)

Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim, a native of South Korea, has been sentenced to life in prison by North Korea‘s highest court after it found him guilty of “crimes against the state.” Pastor Lim traveled to Pyongyang in January as part of a group that had gone to support a nursing home, nursery, and an orphanage in the North Korean capital. However, he was arrested in February and in July was brought to a press conference where he stated that his humanitarian work had been a “guise” for “subversive plots and activities in a sinister bid to build a religious state.”

Pastor Lim leads the Toronto based Light Korean Presbyterian Church and has traveled to North Korea on humanitarian aid missions for the better part of twenty years. It is unclear what, if anything, was different about this trip. The North Korean government has made a habit of detaining foreigners in recent years, especially those linked to religious activity, and confessions similar to pastor Lim’s were made in previous cases. However, most doubt their sincerity or legitimacy given that many of those that confessed have later stated that they were coerced into doing so.

In addition to the confessed “crimes,” Reverend Lim was also accused of helping North Korean defectors escape the country, insulting the supreme leader, and disseminating anti-government propaganda. If true, the state prosecutors’ decision to initially seek the death penalty would be understandable. However, most doubt the veracity of those claims and thus even the life sentence seems unwarranted.

The Canadian government did not take the sentence lightly, calling it “an unduly harsh sentence…particularly given his age [early 60s] and fragile health.” Unfortunately, and in violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, Lim’s 90 minute trial was the first time that Canadian officials had been allowed to see their detained citizen despite numerous requests to do so. While it seems doubtful that the trial would have gone differently if they had met prior to its start, the denial of the pastor’s internationally sanctioned rights places the court’s decision in an even more dubious light.

However, it seems unlikely that Reverend Lim will be forced to endure the totality of his punishment given that there is strong precedent for similar such detainees to be released after serving part of their sentence. Moreover, Canada’s new government is under increasing pressure to secure his release. So while it is unclear how or when this case will be resolved, it is far too early for Reverend Lim, his family, or his congregation to give up hope.

Hope is an interesting concept in scripture. We tend to think of it as this ethereal emotion that is meant to keep our spirits up when times get tough but that is not really how God’s word describes it. Rather, in the Bible, hope is often the result of faithfulness in the midst of tribulation. In Romans, for example, Paul speaks of the concept often. He describes it as the gift of God through the power of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives (Romans 15:13) and as the final product of a character that is shaped through endurance in the midst of suffering (Romans 5:3-4).

Perhaps the reason hope often seems so elusive at the moments we need it the most is that we fail to remember that connection between our reliance on the Lord and the presence of hope. We cannot have God’s hope apart from God; it just doesn’t work like that. The reason is that God is not only the author of our hope but its sustaining force as well.

So the next time you experience a time of difficulty, and such times will inevitably come in this fallen world, remember to look to God and to rely on the active presence of the Holy Spirit in your life. Looking first to ourselves or others in times of trouble breeds hopelessness where looking to God breeds hope. And we can find comfort in the fact that, as the apostle says, such hope will never disappoint us (Romans 5:5).