TORONTO — Relatives of a Canadian pastor released this week after more than two years in a North Korean prison said Thursday he is “on his way home” and they are anxious to be reunited with him.
The Korean Central News Agency reported Wednesday that North Korea’s central court had decided to free Hyeon Soo Lim, who was serving a life sentence for anti-state activities.
The pastor’s release was described as “sick bail,” but no other details were given.
In a statement Thursday, a spokeswoman for his family said they look forward to his return.
“We are relieved to hear that Rev. Lim is on his way home to finally reunite with his family and meet his granddaughter for the first time,” Lisa Pak said on the family’s behalf.
“There is a long way to go in terms of Rev. Lim’s healing, therefore, in the meantime we ask the media for privacy as he reconnects with his loved ones and receives medical attention.”
Pak also said the family is grateful to the Canadian government and the Swedish embassy in North Korea for working behind the scenes to secure the pastor’s freedom. She did not say when he was scheduled to arrive in Canada.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday he was “pleased and relieved” that Lim had been released.
“Pastor Lim’s health and well-being remain of utmost importance to the government of Canada, and we are working to ensure that he receives any required medical attention,” Trudeau said in a brief statement.
The prime minister also thanked Sweden for its assistance in the matter but said “operational security considerations” prevent the government from discussing the case further.
While Canada lacks an embassy in North Korea, Sweden has maintained one in Pyongyang since 1975. Sweden acts as the “protective power” for Canada and other countries, meaning it can provide different services including consular responsibility for Canadian citizens.
Swedish Foreign Affairs Minister Margot Wallstrom tweeted that she was glad Sweden could assist with the effort to free Lim.
In a Facebook post, she said Sweden had been “actively engaged in Pastor Lim’s case over a long period of time.”
“Our presence in North Korea enables us to engage in dialogue and interactions. We take this role very seriously.”
Wallstrom called Lim’s release a “ray of hope” amid mounting tensions between Pyongyang and Washington.
“Many eyes are now on developments in North Korea. We are firmly convinced that dialogue is the best solution,” she said.
Jessica Hedin, counsellor at the Swedish Embassy in Ottawa, declined to elaborate on the Scandinavian country’s role in helping Lim.
A Canadian delegation led by Daniel Jean, Trudeau’s national security adviser, was in Pyongyang this week to discuss Lim’s case.
Family members had raised concerns about Lim’s health in June following the death of Otto Warmbier, an American student who lived only one week after being released from North Korean custody due to health concerns. Lim’s family had said the pastor needed medication to manage his blood pressure.
Lim, a pastor with the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Mississauga, Ont., had been sentenced by a North Korean court to life in prison with hard labour for what it called crimes against the state.
Charges against him included harming the dignity of the supreme leadership, trying to use religion to destroy the North Korean system, disseminating negative propaganda about the North to overseas Koreans, and assisting American and South Korean efforts to help people defect from the north.
Lim, who has a wife and son living in the Toronto area, started the Light Korean Presbyterian Church nearly three decades ago, shortly after he emigrated from South Korea.
He grew the congregation from about a dozen people in 1986 to more than 3,000 members. He also runs a smaller church in downtown Toronto that caters to young people.
The church has taken on numerous humanitarian projects in North Korea, one of which prompted Lim’s last trip there in January 2015.
Members of the congregation celebrated news of his release Wednesday.
— with files from Jim Bronskill in Ottawa and The Associated Press
Paola Loriggio , The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version had the incorrect spelling of the pastor’s first name.