For more than two years, Rev. Hyeon Soo Lim struggled to dig holes in frozen North Korean mud, read propaganda provided by his captors and prayed, he told the congregation a day after returning to Canada following his release from a labour camp.
Mr. Lim, 62, was handed a sentence of life in prison with hard labour in December, 2015, by North Korea's supreme court for what it called crimes against the state. On Wednesday, he was freed on "sick bail" after a Canadian delegation, led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's national security adviser Daniel Jean, visited the country to press for his release.
Waves of sobs and tears moved through the packed crowd at the ultramodern evangelical church in Mississauga where Mr. Lim spoke at a service on Sunday afternoon in his first public statements since his release.
The church's long-time pastor told congregants that during his imprisonment in North Korea he broke three metal spades after he was ordered to dig through frozen mud.
"During the winter, I had to dig holes that measured one metre wide and one metre deep," Mr. Lim said. "The ground was frozen. The mud was so hard that it took two days to dig one hole. It was incredibly challenging. My upper body was sweating. My fingers and toes were frostbitten."
The man who stood behind the pulpit and addressed his flock after a long absence held the same engaging voice but looked little like the Mr. Lim pictured in "Welcome Home" banners strung around the church. His mane of black hair was gone, replaced by grey stubble, and his prominent cheeks also disappeared after his weight dropped from 90 kilograms to 64 kg during his time in North Korea's labour camp system.
"It's a miracle for me to be here today," he told congregants in Korean. "I always knew Canada was a very warm and compassionate nation, but through my ordeal I really began to grasp that very deeply."
Mr. Lim thanked Canada's government as well as the small Swedish embassy in Pyongyang for their assistance helping secure his release. He said he suffered from "overwhelming loneliness" during his captivity as he ate 2,757 meals in isolation and worshipped alone for 130 Sundays. His release was sudden, with his guards only giving him a 15-minute warning that Canadian authorities were coming to get him.
Described as the church's "spiritual father" by senior pastor Jason Noh, the Light Korean Presbyterian Church has been the focus of Mr. Lim's life for decades after he arrived in Canada from South Korea in 1986. It's one of the largest Korean churches in Canada, with more than 3,000 members. Mr. Noh was elected to take over as pastor only months before Mr. Lim was apprehended in early 2015 by North Korean authorities while on a humanitarian mission.
Before Mr. Lim took the stage to raucous cheers, the congregation sang a hymn he wrote while imprisoned. As he spoke on Sunday, detailing his time in a North Korean labour camp, the audience's tears eventually yielded to laughs as Mr. Lim deviated from his prepared remarks. He spoke directly to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and denied he ever committed the crimes he was accused of. But he added he would let that disagreement remain in the past. "North Korea has enough problems as is," said family spokesperson Lisa Pak, translating and explaining the pastor's comment.
While in the labour camp, Mr. Lim said he read more than 100 books and watched many propaganda films about North Korea's history, allowing him to "grasp and gain a deeper understanding of the 70-year history that formed the nation."
The pastor's release comes at a difficult time for North Korea, as the country is in a war of words over nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests with U.S. President Donald Trump. Mr. Lim had been to North Korea more than 100 times before his arrest, building an expansive humanitarian effort in the country that grew to include an orphanage, nursing home, as well as a noodle and tofu factory. The church's aid efforts in the country were halted soon after the pastor was apprehended.
In mid-2015, the pastor confessed to "indescribable treason" in a televised apology for writing biblical phrases and the name of his church on sacks of food as part of a conspiracy to overthrow the North Korean government. Religious practice and evangelical activities are banned in North Korea. On Sunday, Mr. Lim said the confession was coerced.
"Our prayers were answered. It was incredible. We've been waiting for this moment to come. I had tears of joy," Mr. Noh told The Globe and Mail after the service. He said he spoke with Mr. Lim for some time on Saturday after the elder pastor returned to Canada aboard a government jet that touched down at CFB Trenton air base in the late morning.
Mr. Noh said he isn't sure yet what Mr. Lim's role at the church will be in the future. "He's been alone, praying and planning for the past two and a half years. He's a visionary. There are a lot of things he wants to do."
Many congregants on Sunday said they were relieved by the pastor's return because of health concerns. Mr. Lim was hospitalized four times in North Korea and suffered from hypertension and a number of other health issues. The death of Otto Warmbier, an American university student who fell into a coma while imprisoned in North Korea, led many to fear that their prayers might not be answered. Mr. Warmbier was released June 13, but died six days later.
"There's just such a sense of relief and spiritual renewal today," said Edward Park, who was at the church with his four-year-old son Noah. "We're relieved, he looks healthier than many of us expected."