I spent 919 days in a North Korean prison
I endured crippling isolation, hard labour and the daily threat of execution. This is how I survived
Of course I knew the risks. North Korea is one of the world’s most isolated, most heavily militarized nations, governed according to the whims of one man. I had heard the stories of foreigners being imprisoned, tried unfairly and sentenced to death, of the purging of political rivals and suspected traitors. But my relationship to North Korea was unique. I was a Presbyterian pastor from Mississauga offering aid to a country that desperately needed it. My first visit was in 1996, following massive flooding that ruined crops, paralyzed the country and led to the death of roughly a million citizens over a five-year period, most from starvation. During that first visit, I volunteered at an orphanage. On subsequent visits, I helped build another orphanage and five daycare centres in the port city of Rason with donations from our congregation. Our church donated winter coats, boots and eyeglasses. And over time, I became known to government officials, who allowed me special access to the country. We spearheaded a project to construct eight senior citizens’ homes, assembled a team to help schoolteachers learn English, built farms and employed North Koreans to tend to the crops, started a noodle factory that now makes 40,000 packages of noodles a day. We invested in a gas station in Hamhung, the country’s second-largest city, and used the proceeds to help fund our orphanages. By 2015, I had visited North Korea 150 times, sometimes accompanied by my wife, Keum Young, sometimes by other church members, and I was never so much as hassled. For me, a visit to Pyongyang had become no more perilous than a trip to the mall.
Near the end of 2014, I was at home when I received a phone call from a Korean missionary I knew based in China. North Korea’s trade minister, he said, was requesting a meeting with me. The trip would take just one day, and the conversation related to tourism, which struck me as odd—I’d been contacted by the North Korean government before but never about tourism. I told him no, but he kept calling and asking. Finally, I relented. I was headed to Seoul in January to visit my mother and said I could add a day trip to North Korea. When the day came, I hopped on a flight to Shenyang, China, near the border to North Korea. I figured I’d be back in Seoul before nightfall.
My car pulled up to the border between China and the Rason Special Economic Zone, a designated area inside North Korea surrounded by an electric fence, where foreign companies are allowed to do business. Armed guards lined the border and dozens of uniformed officials checked paperwork. This was during the Ebola crisis, and the government was holding all travellers in a 21-day quarantine in a dormitory, long enough for symptoms to present themselves. I’d travelled to North Korea so many times that I have what’s essentially a Nexus card—a green ID card that signals to officials that I can cross without scrutiny. Only a handful of people in the world have one. I flashed my card and passport, and a guard nodded me through; I bypassed the quarantine. A group of government staff members, some of whom I’d met during prior visits, were waiting for me, and they informed me that the plans had changed: my presence was needed in Pyongyang, which would mean a 17-hour drive. So much for a day trip. They gestured toward a shiny SUV, and I got in.
As we drove along paved roads, mountains rising in the distance, we passed North Koreans in drab, made-in-China clothing walking by the roadside—it’s rare for anyone who isn’t a high-level government official to own a car in North Korea. Hours later, we arrived at a small hotel in Pyongyang.
The Hermit Kingdom is remarkably stratified—while 10.5 million residents are undernourished, places like Pyongyang are rich with hotels, art galleries and a functional subway system. I was famished, so I headed straight to the dining room, which was strangely empty, and ordered kimchee stew and short ribs. After I ate, I went to my room to sleep. As I lay down, I heard the door open. In rushed six men I’d never seen before in plainclothes, all armed with handguns. One of them grabbed me, pulled me to my feet and pushed me out the door. I was bewildered. “What is happening?” I asked. “What is the problem? Where are you taking me?” They said nothing. Someone blindfolded me and shoved me in the back of a vehicle. At first I thought maybe they were taking me to quarantine, since I had bypassed the Ebola station at the border. But when they removed the blindfold, I was sitting on the cement floor of a cell in what I later learned was a detention centre near Pyongyang. There was no bed, no windows—just a mould-covered toilet and a sink.
Soon, a young man came to my cell. He didn’t introduce himself, but I could tell that he worked for the government. He began to ask questions about a sermon I’d given at a conference in Texas that had found its way online. In it, I tell my audience they shouldn’t worship the Kim family as gods. This was how I felt. I believe that North Korea is a place where the devil resides, and that Kim Jong-un brainwashes his people, as his father did before him. Forcing their citizens to deify them is a sacrilege. Apparently these views had reached someone powerful. My visitor brought up a line from a 2010 sermon in which I said, “If God allows…in a few years, North Korea will be evangelized and recover its past glory.” Now I realized what was going on. Kim Jong-un considered me an enemy of the state.
After three weeks of daily interrogation—they wanted to know who else I was working with to undermine the government—a state judge came to see me. He explained icily that I’d been charged with harming the dignity of the supreme leadership of the country, trying to use religion to destroy the government, spreading negative propaganda about North Korea to Koreans overseas and aiding Northern defectors. I was stunned. After everything I’d done to try to help their people, I thought, how could they possibly treat me this way? I realized that I could spend the rest of my life in a cell.
I yearned for home. I’d first visited Canada in 1986, as a guest speaker at a Christian conference in Toronto. At one point during my trip, I drove north of the city to explore. Exhausted, I decided to pull over to the side of the road to sleep. Hours later, I woke up to see a police officer standing beside my car. I rolled down the window and peered out nervously. “I just wanted to make sure you were safe,” he said. “I was waiting until you woke up.” The experience was radically different from what would have happened back home, where the officer might have demanded a bribe, or worse. I returned to Korea, but I was so struck by the warmth I’d received in Canada, and how much more calm and prosperous it was, that I decided to make a permanent move.
You never truly appreciate the rule of law until you lose it. Just once, a 50-something man with thick dark hair entered my cell and introduced himself as my state-appointed lawyer, then scolded me. “Why did you curse the Kim dynasty?” he asked. I knew the purported justice system was a sham and that anyone claiming to be on my side was a trap—all lawyers in North Korea work for the state. “I’m sorry,” I said, simply. Our visit didn’t last long.
A rotating cast of interrogators came every day, asking the same questions over and over again. I told them about the charitable work I had performed over the years, but they didn’t want to hear it. I knew that asking to speak to a representative of the Canadian government would be risky. All I could do to ensure my safety was co-operate, avoid aggravating anyone and pray that the misery would soon end.
Every day, for lunch and dinner, guards pushed a bowl through a slot in my door. It was almost always rice smeared with dirt and containing bits of gravel I’d have to pick out. I would eat it with my hands, cross-legged on the floor. I suffered from high blood pressure, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. Once a week, guards would drop a pail of hot water in my room so I could wash myself.
The hardest part was the boredom. A single minute sometimes felt like an hour. I thought often about my beautiful wife, Keum Young. We had met decades earlier at a Bible study in South Korea. There were 20 of us, praying, eating, playing guitar. A slender girl serving snacks caught my eye, and I learned she was my teacher’s sister-in-law. When I stood to leave, she smiled warmly. “Please come again,” she said. I did. We began to walk to church together and to take strolls in a nearby park after service. Six months later, I left to begin my three-year mandatory stint in the Korean army, where I was placed in the general infantry. Keum Young and I kept in touch by writing letters, and when I returned to Seoul, we got married. Seven years later, we welcomed a baby boy, James.
Thoughts of my family brought me some peace and helped occupy my mind. Occasionally, I was allowed scraps of paper and a pencil, and I used them to write hymns. I requested some books, and guards brought me biographies of Kim Jong-il and his father, Kim Il-sung. The guards hoped, I think, that the literature might indoctrinate me. Instead, it only deepened my resolve against them, these men propped up as demigods.
After about a year, I decided to change tack. Presumably, the state was happy to keep me locked up until I died. I hadn’t heard from the Canadian government, and I assumed I never would. For all I knew, they didn’t have any idea where I was or whether I was even alive. The best path to survival, I figured, was to end the stalemate, agree with the authorities and hope they’d show me mercy. I confessed to all of their absurd accusations.
On December 15, 2015, two guards picked me up off of the floor of my cell. At this point, I had been held captive for 316 days. They put me in a black jacket, wrapped a blindfold around my head and drove me to the courthouse. Outside the courtroom, the guards allowed me to speak with four Canadian delegates who’d come to observe my trial. “Have you been tortured?” one man asked me. I shook my head. I was led into court in handcuffs to face three judges who sat in ornate cherrywood thrones. The country’s flag hung squarely behind them and a gaggle of state reporters recorded my every move as I sat in a box off to one side. Prosecutors presented evidence—a video of me delivering a sermon, and transcripts of other addresses. The hearing took less than an hour. My lawyer confirmed that I’d confessed to every charge. I was given the chance to speak, and I promised I’d never again do harm to North Korea.
In Canada, judges typically take weeks to render their decisions. In North Korea, it’s instantaneous. I kept my head bowed as the judges deliberated. “You are sentenced to execution,” one of them announced. I felt rage rising inside me. I was going to die, probably by hanging or firing squad, and for what? I had done nothing. But what did it matter? The room went silent. The judges were conferring. The same one spoke again, saying they’d downgraded the sentence to life in a labour camp. They offered no explanation for the change. Relief washed over me.
Guards escorted me to a car and pushed my head to the floor as we drove so I couldn’t see where we were going. When I was allowed to look up, I saw a grey, U-shaped complex, surrounded by an electric fence, security cameras mounted on the walls. The guards wore army fatigues and carried handguns. Inside, the building was decrepit and stank of gas, due to a leak. I was led to my cell—a small concrete room with a bed, a toilet and a sink. It was hot and fetid, with mosquitoes and aphids swarming the air. I hadn’t slept on a bed in almost a year, but my excitement was short-lived. The mattress was infested with cockroaches that would crawl over me in the night. Their shells were too tough to squash them with my bare feet, so I used a wooden stick that hung by the sink, slaughtering up to 30 a day in a sick game of whack-a-mole.
That first night, I sat on my bed, stared blankly at the wall, and let waves of anger, doubt and uncertainty wash over me. I prayed. I cried. I tried to think of Bible verses that would give me strength. I was determined not to lose my mind.
My days fell into a bleak routine. At 6 a.m., a loudspeaker blared a wake-up call, and I would pull on my grey pants and jacket. The guards liked to scream my prisoner number, 36, in my face and tell me I would never make it home. “You’re going to die here,” they would say. Every day, I had to remind myself that yelling back would only incite retaliation. Breakfast was six slices of flimsy white bread and a tin coffee pot of water. Work started at 8 a.m. From the prison yard, I could see low mountains rolling in every direction, with potato and corn fields just beyond the fence. The prison itself was decaying—the tap water wasn’t drinkable, the lights flickered on and off, and, although there were more than 40 guards staffing the place, I never saw another prisoner.
My main task was to dig holes—one metre wide by one metre deep—for an apple orchard. And as soon as I’d finish one, I was to dig another. I was always watched by guards and monitored by cameras everywhere I went. My back ached constantly. Sometimes, I’d be given a shovel. Otherwise, I dug with my hands. In winter, the ground froze, but I was expected to dig anyway. There were days when my fingers spasmed so severely that I couldn’t make a fist. Sometimes, I was told to break apart big chunks of coal. It was no less taxing than digging, but at least it was something different.
I would return to my cell every night around 6 p.m., bone weary and yearning for sleep. Oddly, my cell began to feel like home—it was at least familiar, a place of rest. Lunch and dinner were always the same: bowls of dirty rice flecked with various bits of inedible detritus. I was given one boiled egg a week, an occasional potato and, rarely, salted cabbage. Evenings were the loneliest hours. Between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., I’d be forced to participate in two hours of what they called “cultural time.” But since I was given no culture to consume, I prayed, trying to hang on to God and make sense of my predicament.
There were fleeting moments of humanity. Some guards were friendly and even confided in me. Two of them told me they were having trouble connecting with their sons. I told them it was important for teenage boys to feel heard and cared for, and urged them to express affection, make eye contact and ask insightful questions. That had worked with my son, James. A few days later, one of them reported back. “I tried what you suggested and it worked!” he said.
My body began to deteriorate. In winter, my toes turned purple from the cold, even when I layered on socks and wrapped my feet in plastic bags in a failed attempt to keep them warm. My hands grew wizened and decrepit. Some evenings, I couldn’t move from stiffness. I’d lost 50 pounds—about a third of my original body weight. I was breaking down. Eventually, the guards noticed, and they took me to a hospital. But hospitals in North Korea are places of convalescence, not treatment. The staff gave me expired painkillers; each blood pressure monitor gave a different reading. I spent two months there before I was sent back to the prison camp.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the Canadian government was working to secure my release. Canada doesn’t have a diplomatic presence in North Korea, and instead relies on Sweden’s presence there to handle consular issues and communicate with prisoners from other countries. Still, officials from Canada had discussed my case with North Korea’s foreign minister. I was eventually allowed a few letters from my family, which were delivered by Swedish diplomats, and learned that they were doing everything they could to get any information from our network of missionary contacts across Korea and China.
The combined force of those efforts may have helped. In January 2016, I was allowed to do an interview with Will Ripley, a CNN journalist the North Korean government had granted access to before. We met in the conference room of a Pyongyang hotel. Ripley asked me whether my views on the country’s leadership had changed, and I said yes. “I used to think they deified their leaders too much, but they never called themselves gods,” I told him. That wasn’t true, of course. Ripley asked me if there was anything I needed, and I asked for a Bible. A guard soon delivered one to my cell, sent from my wife, possibly months earlier, along with my blood pressure medication. “I would like to tell my family I love them so much,” I told Ripley, tears welling in my eyes. I knew my wife and son would be watching, and I wished desperately to see them again.
A year later, in February, they drove me to a hotel and allowed me a 30-minute call. The guards stood beside me, listening the entire time. “I love you,” Keum Young said. Hearing her voice gave me hope. “Please take care of yourself,” I told her, before my time was up.
In June 2017, a student from the University of Virginia named Otto Warmbier became unresponsive while in a North Korean prison—they claimed he’d tried to leave the country with a propaganda poster and sentenced him to 15 years of hard labour. The North Koreans released him, but he died several days later. The incident sparked an international outcry that my family used to pressure the government even harder.
On the morning of August 9, 2017, I was digging holes as usual when a guard ordered me to stop, ushered me inside and told me to gather my things. I scooped up my Bible and a few papers, including one of the hymns I’d composed, and they shoved me in a car. Thirty minutes later, I was pulled into a tiny conference room of a Pyongyang hotel. On one side of a long table was a line of people I assumed were Canadians. I later learned that it was Daniel Jean, a national security adviser to Prime Minister Trudeau and the former deputy foreign affairs minister, plus five other delegates. Opposite were six North Koreans. No one spoke, and no one acknowledged me. A North Korean official entered carrying a letter, and one of his team read it aloud. As soon as he said the Korean word for “release,” I knew I was free.
It had been 919 days—two years, six months and one week—since I’d been incarcerated. As we filed quietly out of the room, I felt like I was in a waking dream. It wasn’t until I was safely on the plane, watching the mountains recede out the window, that we exploded with jubilation. I was finally free.
We stopped in Hawaii to refuel, and I called my mother in South Korea. She said she’d seen the news hours earlier and hadn’t stopped crying since. We landed at the Canadian military base in Trenton on August 12, and my family were waiting for me on the tarmac. I flung my arms around my wife, my face messy with tears. I held my son close. I held my one-year-old granddaughter for the first time. It was the purest joy I’ve ever experienced, a moment I’d longed for but didn’t know would ever arrive. We drove home, and I sat down to an enormous bowl of kimchee. After 2,757 meals in prison, it tasted otherworldly. I spent the next days surrounded by family, visiting the doctor and settling back into the life I’d left behind. When I returned to church, my congregants cheered and cried.
Today, life has returned to normal. I’m 62 years old. My health is okay. I plan to retire from my duties at the church and focus on missionary work in the U.S. I would return to North Korea if I could—the people there still need so much help—but I’m not sure their government would ever allow it, and I think there are safer ways for me to do my work. I still don’t understand why I went through what I did. But I believe that God had a reason, that my ordeal had a greater purpose. I see it as a blessing. I’m just not exactly sure what kind yet.