The Koreas

In North Korea, Detained Canadian’s Fate Remains a Mystery

While North Korea parades other foreign detainees, the fate of Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim remains unknown.

John Power
In North Korea, Detained Canadian’s Fate Remains a Mystery
Credit: North Korea prison wall image via Shutterstock

North Korea paraded foreign detainees before international media again this week, in what has become a common tactic for dealing with outsiders accused of crimes.

The government granted CNN exclusive access to three South Korean prisoners inside the country: Kim Kuk-gi and Choe Chun-gil, who were detained in March on accusations of spying for South Korea, and Joo Won-moon, a student at New York University who says he entered the country illegally last month, hoping to improve relations between the two Koreas.

In separate interviews on Sunday and Tuesday, all three men acknowledged their alleged crimes and insisted they were being treated well. It is unclear whether they were speaking freely in the country infamous for a lack of due process.

While their fate remains uncertain, they are at least accounted for, unlike Hyeon Soo Lim, a Canadian pastor who disappeared in the country in January.

Conspicuous by his absence in the latest television appearances, Lim has not been heard from since entering the country on what his church says was a routine humanitarian mission. Lim had reportedly visited the country on humanitarian work more than 100 times prior to his latest trip. North Korea only confirmed his detention in March, weeks after his disappearance.

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Since then, there has been no update whatsoever on his situation, according to Lisa Pak, a spokeswoman for Lim’s Light Korean Presbyterian Church, while his case has dropped off the media radar.

“We haven’t received any official confirmation about his health and current conditions of confinement,” she told The Diplomat, adding that she had hoped the CNN interviews might reveal new information. “The last time we had any official news from North Korea was when he was being detained.”

Pak said that even the reason for his detention and his location remain unknown.

She added: “Literally, if we were to do a comparison chart between what we knew then [in March, when Lim’s detention was announced] and what we know now, it’s actually pretty much the same.”

Pak said that to her knowledge no diplomatic official has been granted permission to visit Lim. Canada does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea, and warns its citizens against traveling there. Ottawa relies on the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang to assist citizens who encounter trouble there.

The Swedish embassy in Pyongyang has previously told The Diplomat that it never comments on “matters concerning consular issues.”

After almost six months of effective silence, Lim’s church and family are increasingly fearful for his welfare, according to Pak.

“For the family and the church, of course the longer it goes on the more concerned we are,” she said. “We just want him back, that’s the bottom line.