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North Korea Releases Canadian Pastor after Two-Year Imprisonment | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim during a public interrogation at the People’s Palace of Culture in Pyongyang, North Korea in 2015. (AFP)

A Canadian pastor detained by North Korea in 2015 was released on Wednesday in a goodwill gesture by the Pyongyang, the official KCNA news agency said.

Hyeon Soo Lim, 61, was freed on “sick bail”, the agency announced after a Canadian government delegation arrived in Pyongyang to discuss the case.

The office of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier said that the delegation, led by his national security adviser, Daniel Jean, had arrived in Pyongyang on Tuesday.

He was serving a life sentence with hard labor. He was arrested in 2015 for allegedly meddling in North Korean state affairs.

A court ordered Lim’s release “from the humanitarian viewpoint”, it said in a brief two-paragraph report.

The South Korean-born pastor had been accused of subversive acts against Pyongyang, an allegation which Canadian authorities strongly denied.

A Canadian delegation including national security adviser Daniel Jean visited Pyongyang this week to discuss the case.

“Pastor Lim’s health and well-being remain of utmost importance to the government of Canada as we continue to engage on this case,” said Cameron Ahmad, a spokesman for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in Ottawa before the release.

Lim’s family told local media they had become increasingly worried about his welfare since the death of American student Otto Warmbier in June.

Warmbier, sentenced last year to 15 years’ hard labour for trying to steal a propaganda item from his hotel during a tour, died in a Cincinnati hospital just days after being released in a coma. The circumstances of his death remain unclear.

Three US citizens remain in custody as relations with Washington worsen sharply. The North said earlier Wednesday it was considering a missile strike near US bases in Guam.

That comment came hours after US President Donald Trump threatened Pyongyang with “fire and fury” over its missile program.

At the time of Lim’s arrest, other members of the close-knit circle of ethnic Korean missionaries in Canada and the United States called him one of the most influential Christian missionaries operating in North Korea.

He had visited the country dozens of times, working with orphanages and nursing homes.

But some projects he worked on, including a noodle plant and flour mills, were linked to associates of Jang Song-Thaek, the purged uncle of leader Kim Jong-Un.

Jang was arrested and executed for treason in December 2013.

Lim told CNN last year that he spent his days in prison digging holes. “I wasn’t originally a laborer so the labor was hard at first,” he said, his head shaven.

Pyongyang views foreign missionaries with deep suspicion, though it allows some to undertake humanitarian work.

South Korea, the US and others often accuse North Korea of using foreign detainees to wrest diplomatic concessions, and foreigners have said after their release that their declarations of guilt had been coerced while in North Korean custody.

A number of Christian missionaries — mostly ethnic Koreans who are US citizens — have been arrested in the past, with some of them only allowed to return home after intervention by high-profile US political figures.

Trudeau’s spokesman Cameron Ahmad said the government considered Lim’s health of “utmost importance” but did not give more details about the delegation.

Canada does not have diplomatic offices in Pyongyang and relies on Sweden to handle consular issues. Lim met with the Swedish ambassador at least twice this year and met Canadian officials in December.