OTTAWA (AFP) - A Canadian pastor who went missing in North Korea is being held by the communist state’s authorities, his church and Canadian consular officials said Thursday.
Reverend Hyeon Soo Lim, 60, has not been heard from since Jan 31, just after he arrived in North Korea via China.
The Light Korean Presbyterian Church said his family “received notice from Canadian officials that the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has confirmed that Mr Hyeon Soo Lim is being held in North Korea.”
A Canadian government official told AFP that Ottawa is aware of a Canadian citizen detained in North Korea and is trying to help them.
But, the official added, Ottawa has no diplomatic relations with North Korea and so “the ability of Canadian officials to provide consular assistance is extremely limited.”
Lim went missing while on a humanitarian mission, according to church officials. He had led many aid missions to North Korea in the past involving work with orphanages and nursing homes, they said.
Lim’s lack of communication was initially attributed to the 21-day quarantine imposed on all foreign visitors to North Korea to prevent any outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus.
But that period would have ended on Feb 21, after which there was still no news, prompting Lim’s church to go public to try to determine his whereabouts.
Reverend Chun Ki-Won, the director of Durihana, a South Korean Christian missionary organisation helping North Korean refugees, said Lim was one of the most influential Christian missionaries operating in the North.
Chun told AFP Lim had been asked to come to Pyongyang on Jan 31.
He said this information came from other members of the close-knit circle of ethnic Korean missionaries in the United States and Canada who are involved in aid projects in the North.
The reason for the invitation was unclear, but he said he feared it was political.
Chun noted that some of the food-related projects Lim was involved in were linked to associates of Jang Song-Thaek, the purged uncle of leader Kim Jong-Un.
Jang is known to have led many joint economic projects before he was dramatically arrested and executed for treason in December 2012.
Ottawa advises its citizens against travel to North Korea.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson said, “This (case) underscores what the Canadian government has been saying: ‘Don’t go to North Korea.’”
Although religious freedom is enshrined in the North Korean constitution, religious activity is severely restricted to officially-recognised groups linked to the government.
Pyongyang views foreign missionaries with deep suspicion, although it allows access to some who undertake humanitarian work.
However, anyone caught engaging in any unauthorised activities would be subject to immediate arrest.
A number of missionaries – mostly US citizens – have been arrested in North Korea in the past with some of them allowed to return home after interventions by high-profile US figures.