Hyeon Soo Lim: Ottawa urged to step up pressure to gain release from North Korean prison

Ottawa is failing to take "clear" steps which could help secure the release of a seriously ailing Toronto pastor from a North Korean prison, despite messages relayed from the authoritarian country that those steps would up his chances of getting home, say Canadian sources familiar with the case.

Mississauga, Ont., church minister has been in hard labour camp since December

North Korea sentenced church minister Hyeon Soo Lim to life in prison last December, accusing him of plotting to overthrow the North Korean government. (Kyodo/Reuters)

Ottawa is failing to take "clear" steps which could help secure the release of a seriously ailing Toronto pastor from a North Korean prison, despite messages relayed from the authoritarian country that those steps would up his chances of getting home, say Canadian sources familiar with the case.

Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim was convicted in December of plotting to overthrow the North Korean government, and since then has languished in a hard labour camp. The 62-year-old senior pastor of Mississauga's Light Korean Presbyterian Church is apparently in pain, has lost weight and is slower in his responses.

Ottawa says it is doing everything in its power to get Lim out of prison and in the interest of his case, it won't divulge many details on its exact efforts to make that happen.

Canadian consular officials have visited him twice in Pyongyang where he is serving a life sentence.

But frustration is growing among Canadians tracking the case who say Ottawa is "too silent," and should take the initiative and engage and pressure North Korea more directly on setting Lim free.

They insist that a road map — informed by knowledge of the North Korean position and by the U.S. experience in gaining the release of prisoners — exists, and that Canada is not acting on it despite being told what needs to be done.

Consular visits 'don't cut it'

"Consular visits don't cut it," said one knowledgeable Canadian source who did not wish to be identified. "They are not [the] proactive move necessary to get him released."

The source added that whatever Ottawa's efforts so far, they are falling flat in Pyongyang.

What's necessary instead, said several people contacted by CBC News, is a well-tested U.S.-style intervention that combines contact and pressure.

American Kim Dong Chul, seen at his trial in April in Pyongyang, was sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of spying. Another American, university student Otto Warmbier, is serving a 15-year sentence for 'hostile acts' against the country. (Kim Kwang Hyon/Associated Press)

"It's clear as day what needs to be done," said the Canadian source.

"The prime minister has to write a letter to the chairman [North Korean leader Kim Jong-un] requesting release or pardon."

A higher-level emissary could also travel to Pyongyang to negotiate with the leadership there, said the source.

Only Kim, the supreme leader, has the power to grant a pardon.

Global Affairs and the Prime Minister's Office say they have been "fully engaged" on the case since it started, and would not discuss their efforts beyond the consular visits.

"Consular officials are providing assistance to Mr. Lim and his family. We are grateful that we were able to visit him," said Joseph Pickerill, a spokesman for the Global Affairs minister.

The feeling in Ottawa is that the unpredictability of the North Korean government means what would be a normal intervention in this case may be misrepresented by a regime with few friends on the international stage.

But those who know the country and the case say interventions can be successful, without compromising Canada's overall position on North Korea and its nuclear tests.

Send a letter, Stockwell Day urges

Former cabinet minister and leader of the opposition Stockwell Day, who was asked by the family to get involved, says he, too, has advised Ottawa the prime minister to send a letter to Pyongyang. That advice is based on messages he's heard from North Korean officials.

Ottawa's approach "may be well-intended … but in fact that's not how it is interpreted in North Korea," he said in a telephone interview from Miami where he was attending a conference.

"Contrary to how the U.S. handles such cases, our government seems to be more reserved and not as aggressive. … My sense is that the government needs to be taking it up a notch."

Kenneth Bae, an American tour guide and missionary, was released in November 2014 from what he believes is the same hard labour camp. He is in Toronto to raise the profile of Hyeon Soo Lim's case. (Wong Maye-E/ Associated Press)

Though there was no guarantee it would work in Lim's case, such engagement would "greatly increase" his chances of release, he said.

"That makes it worth the effort," Day added.

American missionary Kenneth Bae, who was convicted of subversion in North Korea, is also advising that Ottawa do more. He is in Toronto this week to raise the profile of Lim's case.

He has just published a book about his ordeal and believes Lim is serving his sentence at the same hard labour camp he survived.

It was there he was occasionally given hints on what Pyongyang thought was a way out.

Bae was pardoned and released in 2014 after a high-level U.S. emissary led negotiations for his release.

"They want the Canadian government to make an effort to negotiate or sit down … with government for his release," he said in a telephone interview.

Saving face important

"They want some sort of gesture from the Canadian government to save their face. They need an excuse to let him go."

CBC News could not get comment from North Korean officials in Pyongyang, and requests for access to Lim for an interview were turned down.

Lim appeared in an interview with CNN earlier this year. Bae says allowing the interview was a clear signal to Ottawa that they were willing to negotiate.

Canada currently has a "limited policy of controlled engagement" with Pyongyang, due to a pattern of "aggressive actions," according to Global Affairs.

Lim's health has worsened

That controlled engagement does allow for interaction on consular cases like Lim's.

The last consular visit to Lim was in April, where officials apparently found him in worse health. His exact medical condition has not been made public, but Day says Lim had run out of medication that he takes regularly and a substitute medication isn't working.

Concern has also been expressed by North Korean officials about Lim's health, said the Canadian source.

A family spokeswoman declined comment for this report.

However, last month, the family released a statement welcoming the latest consular visit, but also urging Canadian officials to "continue engaging in diplomatic talks at the highest levels possible."

Lim led more than 100 humanitarian missions into North Korea before he was detained on Jan. 31, 2015 in connection with helping citizens defect. He has been in custody since.


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.