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CNN interview with Cdn pastor jailed in NKorea gives supporters hope

Last Updated Jan 11, 2016 at 4:56 pm EDT

Hyeon Soo Lim, center, who pastors the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Toronto, is escorted to his sentencing in Pyongyang, North Korea, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2015. A Canadian pastor serving a life sentence in North Korea says he spends eight hours a day, six days a week, toiling in a labour camp, with no contact with the outside world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Jon Chol Jin

A CNN interview with a Canadian pastor serving a life sentence in North Korea is giving his supporters hope that his release can be negotiated, a spokeswoman for his family said Monday.

That the network was granted “unprecedented” access to Hyeon Soo Lim — a pastor with the Light Korean Presbyterian Church west of Toronto — suggests North Korean authorities may be softening their stance, Lisa Pak said.

“We’re wondering, again, if the Canadian government could just step up their game a little and just really use this as an opportunity to see that perhaps North Korea is now willing to come to the table to negotiate something,” she said.

“Because, you know, if you weren’t willing to release (him) then why the interview? Why this?”

Lim’s TV appearance has also assuaged some of the family’s concerns about his health, since he reports receiving medical care and three meals a day, Pak said.

Others suggested the interview, which appeared to be monitored by North Korean authorities, was meant to deceive the public as to his living conditions.

“Considering that Pastor Lim’s responses were most likely orchestrated by the government, this is probably an effort to propagate a false image of its treatment of Pastor Lim and other prisoners,” wrote the Free Pastor Lim group, which has launched an online petition pushing for his release.

The petition has drawn more than 120,000 signatures in four weeks.

In the interview, Lim described toiling in a labour camp, digging holes to plant trees for eight hours a day, six days a week, completely cut off from the outside world except for two letters sent by relatives.

“I wasn’t originally a labourer so the labour was hard at first but now I’ve gotten used to it,” he said in Korean, which the network translated.

Lim, who is in his 60s, said he is desperate to hear from his family and has only been able to send them one letter so far. He also said he has requested a Bible from North Korean authorities, but has yet to obtain it.

Lim was sentenced in December to life in prison with hard labour by North Korea’s Supreme Court for what it called crimes against the state.

The crimes Lim was charged with included harming the dignity of the supreme leadership, trying to use religion to destroy the North Korean system, disseminating negative propaganda about the North to overseas Koreans and helping U.S. and the South Korean authorities lure and abduct North Korean citizens, along with aiding their programs to assist defectors from the North.

He said his experience has not shaken his faith, and he continues to pray.

“I hope I can go home some day,” he told CNN. “Nobody knows if I will ever go home, but that is my hope. I miss my family. I am longing to see them again, and my congregation.”

Lim’s relatives and colleagues have said he travelled to North Korea on Jan. 31, 2014, as part of a regular humanitarian mission to the country where he supports a nursing home, a nursery and an orphanage.

They said Lim has made more than 100 trips to North Korea since 1997 and that his trips were about helping people and were not political.

North Korea has very strict rules against any missionary or religious activities that it sees as threatening the supremacy of its ruling regime. Merely leaving a Bible in a public place can lead to arrest and possibly severe punishment.

A spokesman for Global Affairs Canada said the federal government is concerned for Lim’s rights and well-being and is “working towards a resolution in his case.”

“Consular officials are providing assistance to Mr. Lim and his family, including consular access. In the interest of Mr. Lim’s case, no further information can be shared,” Francois Lasalle said in an email.

He could not, however, confirm that consular officials had seen Lim aside from the 90-minute trial in which he was sentenced.

Both the Canadian and U.S. governments warn against travel to North Korea.