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Canadian pastor detained on most recent aid trip to North Korea

The Rev. Hyeon Soo Lim has visited the North more than 100 times. His plan this time was to help orphanages and a nursing facility. 

UPDATE 10:45 a.m. Thursday: The family of Rev. Hyeon Soo Lim announced earlier today that the pastor is being held in North Korea. The following story was published yesterday, after reports surfaced that the he had gone missing in the reclusive nation. 

The Korean pastor from Toronto who has disappeared in North Korea is an “outdoorsy guy” who likes to ice fish and whose last trip abroad was to help villagers in the Amazon, according to clergy of his Light Korean Presbyterian Church.

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Rev. Hyeon Soo Lim, who grew up in South Korea but emigrated to Toronto in 1988, has become the latest in a series of religious figures to disappear or be detained in the North. Last fall, American-Korean pastor Kenneth Bae was released after being sentenced to a labor camp. 

The pastor has been to North Korea more than 100 times, but has not been heard from since Jan. 31, when he crossed the Chinese border to enter the country's far north region of Rajin. His plan was to visit orphanages and a nursing facility that the Toronto church, where he is chief pastor, helps financially. 

“It was not a political trip, it was about helping people,” says Lisa Pak, a pastor at Light Korean and church spokeswoman. With Korean authorities often hostile to Christians, Ms. Pak says, “He doesn't hide [his faith] but he doesn’t advertise it. He doesn’t say he’s a pastor. He’s a humanitarian in Korea. He isn’t 'Reverend,' he’s Mr. Hyeon. We think they [Korean authorities] know who he is.”

Lim arrived on Jan. 31 but was subject to a 21-day isolation period that the North has instituted to test for Ebola. Lim has undergone similar incommunicado situations before but has always been in touch afterward. This time he has not, and after Feb. 21, the church and Canadian authorities became concerned. 

While a number of media reports claim that Lim disappeared shortly after being invited to Pyongyang by authorities, Ms. Pak is adamant that “there is no factual basis” for the stories that are datelined out of Seoul, calling them “speculation.” 

Lim, who is married and has one son, has been pastor of Light Korean Presbyterian for 28 of the 30 years he’s lived in Canada. The church has 3,000 members, is evangelical, and engages in missions all over the world. Lim is very good with young people, likes all foods not just Korean, takes members on ice fishing retreats, and is “sturdy, solidly built,” says Pak.

“He is unafraid, and his main strengths are perseverance and compassion … he thinks the message of love, loving one another, needs to be expressed in deeds, not just social justice but in people’s direct needs,” she says.

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The church’s mission to North Korea began in 1996, and its network of charitable projects had reportedly been under the protection of Jang Song-thaek, Kim Jong-un’s uncle and one of the most powerful figures in the North until the young Kim executed him 14 months ago.

“He went there to maintain good relationships and to make sure that resources were going to the right place,” Pak says.

But the regime is highly sensitive about any hint of proselytizing. In 2012, Mr. Bae was charged with attempting to overthrow the government of North Korea, and was sentenced to a labor camp. He was released last fall.

“The North Korean regime is threatened by anyone preaching Christianity,” says Roberta Cohen of the Brookings Institution in Washington. “They look upon Christianity as undermining the Kim dynasty.”

In June, a South Korean Baptist, Kim Jung-wook, was sentenced to life at hard labor after being charged with attempting to set up what North Korean authorities alleged were 500 underground churches. Sources say Mr. Kim, like Lim, was known to officials in the North and made regular visits there. He has not been released. 

Pound for pound, South Korea has one of the most devout and active evangelical communities in the world. Some churches in Seoul have “adopted” areas of North Korea they plan to aid when or if the two sides are ever formally reconciled. Prior to World WarII, Pyongyang was such a fertile ground of missionary activity that it was known as the “Little Jerusalem” of the East.

Many ethnic Koreans now live in across the border in China. Ms. Cohen says that Chinese police often inform their North Korean colleagues about the lives and beliefs of Koreans they capture in China and repatriate. “Ethnic Koreans with Christian connections [who are] returned to the North get worse punishment, we know this,” Cohen says.

The Toronto Globe and Mail reports that the lack of diplomatic ties between Ottawa and Pyongyang have made it difficult for Canadian authorities to make inquiries: 

After largely severing ties with North Korea, Canada has no diplomatic representation there. It leans on the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, which told The Globe and Mail in September it was staffed by a single person. Contact can also be made with North Korea through United Nations representatives.

“The ability of Canadian officials to provide consular assistance is extremely limited,” said Caitlin Workman, a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada. She declined specific comment on the situation for Mr. Lim, citing privacy constraints. “Consular officials are in contact with family members and are providing assistance,” she said.

This story was edited on March 5, 2015 to correct a naming error.