North Korea sets free ail­ing Toronto pastor as ten­sions flare with U.S.


A Toronto pastor serv­ing a life sen­tence in a North Korean labour camp has been freed on “sick bail,” the coun­try’s state me­dia re­ported on Wed­nes­day, at a time when Py­ongyang is at the cen­tre of high-pitched in­ter­na­tional ten­sion over its nu­clear-mis­sile pro­gram that has dom­i­nated at­ten­tion from Wash­ing­ton to Bei­jing.

Hyeon Soo Lim’s ap­par­ent re­lease comes af­ter Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Daniel Jean trav­elled to Py­ongyang this week with a Cana­dian del­e­ga­tion to dis­cuss the pastor’s case and “other is­sues of re­gional con­cern.” The Prime Min­is­ter’s Of­fice had no com­ment Wed­nes­day on Mr. Lim’s re­lease.

It’s un­clear whether the in­ter­na­tional ten­sions swirling around North Korea had any ef­fect on the case of Mr. Lim, about whom fam­ily and friends were grow­ing in­creas­ingly wor­ried.

It’s pos­si­ble that Mr. Lim’s re­lease might be North Korea’s way of send­ing a good­will mes­sage at a time of high ten­sion, to try to por­tray it­self as a rea­son­able coun­try that can ne­go­ti­ate, said Steven Den­ney, a doc­toral fel­low at the Munk School of Global Af­fairs’ Asian In­sti­tute.

“I think that North Korea un­der­stood that it was on thin­ner ice than usual,” he said, af­ter the case of Otto Warmbier, an Amer­i­can univer­sity stu­dent who fell into a coma while im­pris­oned in North Korea – he was re­leased June 13, but died six days later. It’s pos­si­ble the regime is be­ing more cau­tious with Mr. Lim’s health prob­lems, Mr. Den­ney said.

Py­ongyang had rea­son to avoid a re­peat of what hap­pened to Mr. Warmbier.

“That in­ci­dent met with ma­jor U.S. and in­ter­na­tional back­lash against North Korea. It cat­alyzed dis­cus­sions over ad­di­tional hu­man-rights-fo­cused sanc­tions and prompted coun­tries to reeval­u­ate their poli­cies on tourism to the North,” said An­drea Berger, se­nior re­search as­so­ciate at the Mid­dle­bury In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies.

U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump set a con­fronta­tional tone Tues­day, when he said the United States would re­spond to North Korean threats “with fire and fury the world has never seen.”

That height­ened spec­u­la­tion the United States was mov­ing to­ward war with North Korea, though U.S. Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son sought to dial back the fears of im­mi­nent mil­i­tary con­flict as he flew to Guam on Wed­nes­day.

He told re­porters that Mr. Trump was send­ing “a strong mes­sage to North Korea in lan­guage that [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un would un­der­stand.” Even so, the United States has in re­cent weeks de­liv­ered a steady drum­beat of warn­ings to Py­ongyang that it must stand down from its pur­suit of func­tional war­heads for long-range nu­clear mis­siles. There has also been ten­sion be­tween Wash­ing­ton and China, as Mr. Trump re­peat­edly pressed Bei­jing to use its in­flu­ence to rein in its neigh­bour.

China sig­nalled what could be a ma­jor shift by cast­ing a United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil vote on Satur­day to im­pose sanc­tions on North Korea. If China en­forces those sanc­tions, it would have a ma­jor im­pact on its neigh­bour, as most of North Korea’s trade goes through China. The UN vote ap­peared to mark a new will­ing­ness by Bei­jing to openly pres­sur­ing its neigh­bour with puni­tive mea­sures.

China’s in­flu­ence has al­ways been cru­cial in di­plo­macy with North Korea – few other coun­tries have func­tion­ing re­la­tion­ships with Py­ongyang. Canada has no di­rect diplo­matic re­la­tions with Py­ongyang, but Mr. Trudeau’s Lib­eral gov­ern­ment is ac­tively work­ing to warm po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic ties with Bei­jing. For­eign Af­fairs Min­is­ter Chrys­tia Free­land was in China on Wed­nes­day for for­mal talks with Chi­nese For­eign Min­is­ter Wang Yi, ar­riv­ing af­ter Mr. Jean and the del­e­ga­tion were al­ready in North Korea.

Jack Kim, spe­cial ad­viser to HanVoice, a Cana­dian non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that ad­vo­cates for North Korean hu­man rights, said it is not clear if there was a quid pro quo be­tween Canada and North Korea for Mr. Lim’s re­lease. How­ever, he said Mr. Jean’s visit to Py­ongyang may have been enough for the North Kore­ans.

“What they usu­ally want is a high-pro­file of­fi­cial go­ing to North Korea. … Daniel Jean, in the Cana­dian sense, does fit that bill,” Mr. Kim said. “It’s kind of a show of re­spect to the North Korean regime that th­ese for­eign of­fi­cials are com­ing to fetch th­ese in­car­cer­ated folks out.”

Mr. Kim said the gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion to send Mr. Jean – as op­posed to a sit­ting leg­is­la­tor or even a cab­i­net min­is­ter – to Py­ongyang was a “good com­pro­mise” in an ef­fort to not give into the North Kore­ans.

Mr. Lim, who served in one of the largest churches in Canada and trav­elled to North Korea reg­u­larly on hu­man­i­tar­ian mis­sions, was sen­tenced by the coun­try’s Supreme Court in De­cem­ber, 2015, to a life­time of hard labour af­ter be­ing ac­cused of at­tempt­ing to over­throw the regime.

In his early 60s, Mr. Lim is said to suf­fer from high blood pres­sure and is be­lieved to have lost a sig­nif­i­cant amount of weight since his cap­ture.

Mr. Lim’s fam­ily had be­come more con­cerned for his wel­fare since the death of Mr. Warmbier, who had been held in North Korea for 17 months.

Mr. 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.

Staff and mem­bers of Mis­sis­sauga’s Light Korean Pres­by­te­rian Church had long been pray­ing for Mr. Lim’s re­lease and well-be­ing. As­sis­tant pastor John Bae ar­rived Wed­nes­day morn­ing for 5:30 prayers and found out Mr. Lim had been let go an hour later.

“We were pray­ing so hard for good news,” he told The Globe and Mail shortly af­ter re­mov­ing a “Bring Lim Home” sign from his of­fice door. “We’re thank­ful for the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment’s work.”

Ray­mond Cho, a Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive mem­ber of the On­tario leg­is­la­ture who has known Mr. Lim for 20 years, said he has not heard any of­fi­cial word about the pastor’s re­lease, but be­lieves fail­ing health played a ma­jor fac­tor.

“His health must be pretty bad, I sus­pect,” Mr. Cho said.

Mr. Cho said North Korea could be try­ing to “save face” in the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity by re­leas­ing Mr. Lim.

“I don’t think it will help if [Mr. Lim] be­comes any more sick and dies there. At this stage, North Korea is get­ting more and more iso­lated af­ter this con­tin­ued mis­sile test­ing and the nu­clear-arms pro­gram,” he said.

“What­ever the rea­son, I’m ex­ceed­ingly happy he’s com­ing home.”

Con­ser­va­tive Se­na­tor Yonah Martin, who is eth­ni­cally Korean, had pre­vi­ously lob­bied for Mr. Lim to be freed. “I’m re­lieved,” she said, fol­low­ing the news of Mr. Lim’s re­lease.

She said Mr. Warmbier’s death had been a “cat­a­lyst” for the re­lease of the Cana­dian pastor.

Ms. Martin said Mr. Lim had lost more than 44 pounds. Last year, Mr. Lim told CNN he spent eight hours a day dig­ging holes at a labour camp where he had not seen any other pris­on­ers.

His fam­ily had sent him needed med­i­ca­tion but was wor­ried he was not re­ceiv­ing it. A let­ter sent by Mr. Lim to his fam­ily fur­ther raised con­cern that he was un­well.

“The tone in the let­ter,” Ms. Martin said, gave “the sense that his health was def­i­nitely be­ing af­fected.

“How could it not? Be­ing away from fam­ily, away for such a long pe­riod of time af­ter be­ing iso­lated, be­ing un­der watch and un­der hard labour in North Korea.”

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