Detainee Update: Life Sentence for Hyeon Soo Lim



It is with great sadness that we saw that Canadian Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim was given a life sentence of hard labor after a 90-minute trial last week. The sentencing came on the back of a series of charges including (according to the KCNA) that he "committed anti-DPRK religious activities, conducted false propaganda among overseas Koreans, and took active part in the operation of the U.S. and (a South Korean) conservative group to lure and abduct DPRK citizens ... in their programs for 'aiding defectors from the north.'" In his forced confessions—one in an official press conference on July 30, and another at a Sunday worship service at Pongsu Church in Pyongyang on August 2—he admitted to the ultimate crime: using humanitarianism to bring down the regime, thus insulting the “highest dignity” of the system.

Two things about this case interested us. The first is the fact that the indictment explicitly included “anti-DPRK religious activity,” raising the question of whether any Christian organization in the country is ultimately safe.

But second--and even more significant--is the extent to which the North Korean indictment appeared to exercise extra-territorial reach. Lim had visited the country more than a hundred times, mostly in support of projects in Rason. He could have well stepped over some line in North Korea, but his indictment also made reference to things he has said abroad. The message is potentially much more chilling than the North Koreans may recognize. Is anyone who has made unfavorable comment on North Korea vulnerable to arrest if they visit the country? Can assurances even be provided given how capricious the legal system is? The US travel advisory clearly has the political objective of discouraging tourism to the country but it is worth re-reading nonetheless.

An additional wrinkle highlighted by the Toronto Globe and Mail coverage is the change in diplomatic relations between Canada and North Korea that occurred under the Harper government; we covered the complexities of the Harper model in a post earlier in the year, but it might be summarized as a partial de-recognition. Whatever the merits of this approach—and it is now sharply debated—it complicates efforts to secure Lim’s release. A number of countries manage their diplomatic relations with both countries from Seoul, but Canada’s ambassador to South Korea Eric Walsh is not accredited to the North. The Swedes provide representation but they have not been granted access under standard consular norms.

We have said repeatedly that the detainees are a mixed lot. Some take risks that appear more like the exercise of personal whim, but with high diplomatic cost in terms of time and effort for their governments. But we clearly have much more sympathy with those with long experience in country who appear to have managed humanitarian efforts by cautiously flying beneath the radar. Are those days now over? The only sign of hope that we see: if Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon can negotiate his trip to North Korea, we expect that Lim will be on the agenda.

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