Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Canadian Imprisoned in North Korea Gets Audience With Ambassador

A Canadian pastor serving a life sentence in North Korea has been allowed to meet with the Swedish ambassador in Pyongyang and telephone his family.

Hyeon Soo Lim, a pastor with the Light Korean Presbyterian Church of Mississauga, Ont., was sentenced in December 2015 by a North Korean court to life in prison with hard labour for what it called crimes against the state.

Swedish Ambassador Torkel Stiernlof says he met Lim for 40 minutes last week. He said they discussed Lim's health and other matters, but refused to comment further.

The ambassador said in an email to The Associated Press on Wednesday that he and Lim "weren't rushed."

He said there were two North Korean officials in civilian clothes and an official photographer present throughout the meeting, which was held in a conference room at a Pyongyang hotel.

"He was escorted in and out of the room without handcuffs by uniformed guards," Stiernlof said. "We discussed his health and other things, of course, but I refrain from commenting on these matters."

He said Lim spoke over the phone with his family last Friday.

Lim's family confirmed the call but wouldn't provide details of the conversation.

"We would like to extend our deepest gratitude to Swedish Ambassador Torkel Stiernlof for representing the Canadian government in Pyongyang and helping make this meaningful phone call happen," the family said in a statement.

"We take this as an encouraging sign that diplomatic efforts are bearing fruit and we hope to see Reverend Lim return home as soon as possible."

It was unclear why the meeting between Lim and Stiernlof was arranged at this time.

North Korea claims such meetings are granted for humanitarian reasons, but Pyongyang has been accused of using foreign detainees as a way to win political concessions or high-level visits from other countries.

Lim, who is in his 60s, was convicted and sentenced on charges of trying to use religion to destroy the North Korean system and helping U.S. and South Korean authorities lure and abduct North Korean citizens.

Lim's relatives have said the pastor travelled in January 2015 on a regular humanitarian mission to North Korea. They said Lim has made more than 100 trips to North Korea since 1997 and that his trips were about helping people and were not political.

Lim started the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Mississauga nearly three decades ago, shortly after he immigrated from South Korea.

He grew the congregation from about a dozen people in 1986 to more than 3,000 members a family spokeswoman has said. He also ran a smaller church in downtown Toronto that caters to young people.

At least two other foreigners are currently detained in North Korea.

Last year, American Otto Warmbier, then a 21-year-old University of Virginia student from suburban Cincinnati, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labour in prison after he confessed to trying to steal a propaganda banner. Kim Dong Chul, who was born in South Korea but is also believed to have U.S. citizenship, is serving a sentence of 10 years for espionage.

It is not clear under what conditions Lim and the others are being held. Foreign prisoners are usually held in special detention centres that are separate from North Korean prisons.

The Swedish embassy in Pyongyang looks after consular affairs for Canada in North Korea because the two countries do not have diplomatic relations.

Canadian Press

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