SEOUL - South Koreans are defending a Korean-Canadian Christian missionary imprisoned in North Korea who was paraded before cameras this week in Pyongyang where he confessed to participating in “subversive plots.”
Reverend Lim Hyeon-soo, the pastor of the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Toronto, was detained in January, soon after he crossed the Chinese border into the North. On Thursday he publicly confessed to slandering and conspiring to subvert the state.
"I sincerely apologize for the crimes I have committed before all the people in this country. In the rest of my life, I will ensure that I try my best to do things that are conducive to national reconciliation and unity," Lim said.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee defended the Canadian pastor, saying he was involved in humanitarian aid for North Korea.
“We judge that it is improper and inappropriate to detain him for such minor matters and inflate these charges into plotting to overthrow of the state and other crimes.” Jeong Joon-hee said.
‘Subversive’ Charity Work
Although Pyongyang allows some foreign religious organizations to undertake humanitarian work, missionaries have been arrested for violating a ban on proselytizing or committing alleged crimes against the state.
Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) accused the Canadian missionary of acting as "a servant of the U.S. imperialists and South Korean puppet group," and attempting “to build a religious state” inside North Korea.
Reverend Chun Ki-won, the director of Durihana, a South Korean Christian missionary organization, knows Reverend Lim and vouched for his colleague’s work in providing food and assistance as well as building an orphanage and nursing home in North Korea. However, he said missionaries like himself and Reverend Lim do not limit their work to only humanitarian aid and they are unapologetic about it.
“Our purpose is to deliver God’s gospel. Within the gospel, human rights and aid are included. Even though North Korea does not like such works, we do not follow their way,” said Reverend Chun Ki-Won.
Reverend Lim’s supporters say he was coerced in his confession, to conflate acts of charity and faith with high crimes against the state.
In his confession, as detailed by the KCNA, Reverend Kim reported on what was going on inside North Korea to “thousands of South Koreans and overseas Koreans at sermon on Sundays” and during preaching tours in more than 20 countries.
“I made preachment and gave lectures that "North Korea should be collapsed with the love of 'God',” he reportedly confessed.
He also allegedly admitted to marking food donations with religious crosses and biblical phrases and conspiring to help defectors from the North escape to the South.
Missionaries as Negotiations Leverage
Human rights advocate Choi Yong-sang with the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights in Seoul says there has been a crackdown on religious groups working to provide aid in North Korea since Kim Jong Un took power.
“I personally think North Korea is working on a new type of diplomacy by forcibly detaining pastors or missionaries who do missionary work or provide humanitarian aid for North Koreans,” said Choi Yong-sang.
He added that Pyongyang believes that through high-level negotiations for their release it can gain concessions on international sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear program or to end the United Nations’ efforts to prosecute the Kim Jong Un regime for human rights violations.
Canada's Foreign Affairs Ministry expressed deep concern over the arrest of Reverend Lim, who is a Canadian citizen, and said it will advocate for his release.
South Korean authorities also continue to pursue the release of four South Korean citizens being held by the North, including two who confessed to having spied for the South, and a 21-year-old New York University student who is a U.S. green card holder.
VOA Seoul Producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report.