North Korea’s re­lease of On­tario pas­tor re­garded as po­lit­i­cal move

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - LAURA STONE CAMP­BELL CLARK OTTAWA

Hyeon Soo Lim emerged on Thurs­day at a U.S. Air Force base in Ja­pan ap­pear­ing calm and healthy, a de­vel­op­ment seen as a sign that North Korea re­leased the Cana­dian pas­tor as an of­fer­ing of good­will to Western coun­tries at a time when Py­ongyang is at the epi­cen­tre of global po­lit­i­cal tensions.

The sight of Mr. Lim walk­ing around with ap­par­ent ease, and his fam­ily’s re­port that he is be­lieved to be healthy, sug­gest his re­lease was mo­ti­vated by po­lit­i­cal, rather than hu­man­i­tar­ian, rea­sons. It is not known ex­actly when Mr. Lim, who is in his early 60s, will land back in Canada.

He was freed this week on “sick bail” from a North Korean labour camp af­ter a Cana­dian del­e­ga­tion, led by Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Daniel Jean, vis­ited the iso- lated coun­try to dis­cuss the pas­tor’s case.

The de­ci­sion comes as Wash­ing­ton and Py­on­gang trade in­creas­ing threats about the pos­si­bil­ity of nu­clear ac­tion, with U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump on Thurs­day warn­ing that his pre­vi­ous re­marks about North Korea be­ing “met with fire and fury like the world has never seen” may not have been “tough enough.” Mean­while, North Korea vowed to ignite an “en­velop­ing fire” of test mis­siles, de­signed to land 30 to 40 kilo­me­tres off­shore of the U.S. ter­ri­tory of Guam.

North Korea’s han­dling of Amer­i­can prisoner Otto Warm­bier, who was re­leased on June 13 but died six days later, had sparked in­tense crit­i­cism in the United States and may have fu­elled the po­lit­i­cal ap­petite for con­fronting North Korea over its long-range nu­clear mis­sile pro­gram.

» Un­der those cir­cum­stances, there was think­ing that Py­ongyang might be ea­ger to re­lease a prisoner in grave health. But Mr. Lim, who is said to have high blood pres­sure and en­dured weight loss while in cus­tody, ap­peared to be in good health, based on the news footage of him in Ja­pan on Thurs­day.

But the in­ter­na­tional po­lit­i­cal tensions over North Korea’s nu­clear pro­gram might have made the regime more will­ing to re­lease Mr. Lim now, some North Korea ob­servers be­lieve. Un­der so much pres­sure from the United States, it might want to ap­pear to be act­ing rea­son­ably with other coun­tries.

“I think it is pos­si­ble that North Korea wanted to make some kind of de-ic­ing ges­ture with Western coun­tries,” said Peter Lee, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of the U.S. branch of the North Korea Strat­egy Centre.

It’s also not the first time that North Korea has re­leased a prisoner for non-health rea­sons – usu­ally af­ter a se­ries of se­cret ne­go­ti­a­tions and on con­di­tion that a high-level del­e­ga­tion is dis­patched. James Clap­per, the former U.S. di­rec­tor of na­tional in­tel­li­gence, went to Py­ongyang to se­cure the re­lease of two pris­on­ers: Matthew Miller and Ken­neth Bae. Former U.S. pres­i­dents Bill Clin­ton and Jimmy Carter, both out of of­fice, also con­ducted such mis­sions. Such del­e­ga­tions help the regime keep face, Mr. Lee said.

Typ­i­cally, such en­voys carry a let­ter from the na­tional leader – Mr. Clap­per, for ex­am­ple, car­ried a let­ter from then-pres­i­dent Barack Obama that de­scribed the re­lease of two pris­on­ers as a “pos­i­tive ges­ture.”

Brock Univer­sity pro­fes­sor Charles Bur­ton, who writes about China and North Korea, said it would be typ­i­cal for Mr. Trudeau to send such a let­ter with his en­voy. “I think that would have been crit­i­cal to the suc­cess of the whole op­er­a­tion.”

Mr. Trudeau’s of­fice would not con­firm whether the Prime Min­is­ter sent a let­ter or of­fered any con­ces­sion in ex­change for Mr. Lim’s re­lease.

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.

Paul Evans, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia’s In­sti­tute of Asian Re­search, also cited the Warm­bier case as a po­ten­tial fac­tor in Mr. Lim’s re­lease.

But he also said Py­on­gang could be at­tempt­ing to re-en­gage with Canada, and sees an op­por­tu­nity with the Trudeau gov­ern­ment af­ter harsh treat­ment by the pre­vi­ous Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment.

“My sense is that the North Kore­ans con­sis­tently have wanted rep­re­sen­ta­tion and in­ter­ac­tion with Cana­dian gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials. It is us who have closed the door to the North Kore­ans,” Prof. Evans said.

He also said the coun­try could be fas­ci­nated by Mr. Trudeau’s abil­ity to man­age his re­la­tion­ship with Mr. Trump, and is at­tempt­ing to ex­pand its diplo­matic scope with Wash­ing­ton.

“Some well-in­formed peo­ple are say­ing that in the midst of bom­bast from North Korea, that there are signs of a de­sire for dis­cus­sions with the out­side,” Prof. Evans said, adding that it’s “re­ally hard to tell.”

“If they did want to do that, hav­ing Daniel Jean come could have been very use­ful to them. They would have seen it as ex­po­nen­tially valu­able to them.”

Lisa Pak, a spokes­woman for the Lim fam­ily who grew up with the pas­tor’s son, James, said she be­lieves Canada sent a strong diplo­matic mes­sage to North Korea by send­ing Mr. Jean as the Prime Min­is­ter’s special en­voy.

“I re­ally ap­plaud Canada’s ap­proach this time,” she said. “It was such a foil against all the other neg­a­tive rhetoric that’s been go­ing back and forth.”

Ms. Pak said Mr. Lim’s fam­ily is “re­lieved, grate­ful, ex­cited, anx­ious to see him home,” where he will meet his grand­daugh­ter for the first time. The fam­ily also thanked Mr. Trudeau, Cana­dian of­fi­cials and the Swedish em­bassy in Py­ongyang, which helps Canada with diplo­matic mat­ters in a coun­try where Canada does not have a diplo­matic pres­ence.

“There is a long way to go in terms of Rev­erend Lim’s heal­ing, there­fore, in the mean­time we ask the me­dia for pri­vacy as he re­con­nects with his loved ones and re­ceives med­i­cal at­ten­tion,” the fam­ily said in a state­ment. “Fi­nally, we want to thank the global com­mu­nity for the con­tin­ued prayers and sup­port and we also ask that the world does not for­get the peo­ple of North Korea.”

Mr. Trudeau on Thurs­day of­fi­cially con­firmed Mr. Lim’s re­lease, al­most a day af­ter North Korean me­dia first re­ported that the pas­tor had been freed. It is un­clear what tran­spired dur­ing that time and the PMO has said it wouldn’t com­ment on an ac­tive case.

Joseph Caron, Canada’s am­bas­sador to China be­tween 2001 and 2005, said the fact that the North Kore­ans re­leased in­for­ma­tion about Mr. Lim be­fore Canada sug­gests they were “do­ing this, of course, for their own pur­poses.”

“On the Cana­dian side – it isn’t over un­til it’s over. You’re deal­ing with a regime that is to­tally un­pre­dictable and quite pos­si­bly the … com­mu­ni­ca­tions de­ci­sion was, we don’t move un­til every­thing is in or­der, and maybe he’s even out of the airspace,” he said.

Mr. Trudeau said lit­tle about what led to Mr. Lim’s re­lease – “op­er­a­tional se­cu­rity con­sid­er­a­tions pre­vent us from dis­cussing the mat­ter fur­ther” – but noted the role of Mr. Jean and Swe­den in se­cur­ing Mr. Lim’s re­lease.

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