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Pastor freed from North Korean prison lands in Canada, ‘in good health’

Toronto Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim is home, “in good health” and “good spirits,” after being freed from a labour camp in North Korea earlier this week, his family said.

“We’re extremely happy. We’re ecstatic and joyful that my father is now home,” James Lim, his son, said during a press conference at the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Mississauga Saturday afternoon.

Mr. Lim, 62, was freed on “sick bail” Wednesday after a Canadian delegation, led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s national security adviser Daniel Jean, visited the country to discuss his case – more than a year and a half after he was sentenced to a life of hard labour in North Korea after being accused of trying to overthrow the regime.

James thanked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government and Global Affairs Canada for securing his father’s release – a process he acknowledged was a “delicate dance” – and he described the reunion with his father as “surreal.”

When his Canadian Forces jet landed at the CFB Trenton air base late Saturday morning, Mr. Lim, dressed in a baseball cap and windbreaker, was embraced on the tarmac by family and members of his church community.

“It was amazing to see him hold my daughter for the first time … to be able to witness that,” James said. His daughter, Mr. Lim’s only grandchild, was born just less than a year ago.

It was through Global Affairs that James learned of his father’s release, following the meeting between Mr. Jean and North Korean officials. He’d seen an article posted on North Korea’s official website, but the call from Ottawa confirmed it.

“I will say that [my] biggest thanks actually goes out to the incredible staff at Global Affairs … those that have been communicating on a weekly if not daily basis with us over the last couple months,” he said.

Mr. Lim had been able to call his wife and son, as well as his mother in Seoul, from the airplane on the trip home – and “to be able to hear his voice over that time period was reassuring.”

The focus for Mr. Lim on his first day home has been on reconnecting with family and friends, James said, noting that they “haven’t gotten into details yet” about his ordeal as a prisoner.

“We asked him what was the first thing he wanted to do, and he said he wanted to stop by a Tim Hortons for a coffee and a donut,” James said.

His father is also “very excited” to attend a service at the church on Sunday morning, he added – his father’s faith has only been strengthened by this experience.

“His faith has grown stronger. He was telling me that he had about 2,700 meals on his own … in isolation. And through those times, he was able to spend time with God in that solitude,” he said. “I would say that he made the best of it.”

Mr. Lim had travelled to North Korea regularly on humanitarian missions before his detainment – logging more than 100 trips over the last two decades. His focus there, family friend and former church colleague Lisa Pak said at Saturday’s press conference, was food and nutrition sustainability.

“Our family’s position is that we should never forget about the people of North Korea,” James added.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that he is “pleased and relieved” about Mr. Lim’s release, and thanked the Swedish government for their assistance.

Global Affairs said in a statement Saturday that they “join Pastor Lim’s family and congregation in celebrating his long-awaited return to Canada.” The department said it will “continue to support him and his family now that he has returned.”

The pastor’s release comes at a time of swirling international tension in Pyongyang.

On Saturday, James acknowledged that his family has felt an added “urgency” since the death of Otto Warmbier, an American university student who fell into a coma while imprisoned in North Korea. He was released June 13, but died six days later.

While Mr. Lim’s release was described as “sick bail,” his son said he appears to be healthy, but will undergo a medical checkup.

Asked at Saturday’s press conference whether this or any other tensions in North Korea – including that country’s war of words with the United States – had an effect on Mr. Lim’s release, Ms. Pak said it would be difficult to pinpoint why the decision was made.

“We are very fortunate our story ended this way,” she said simply.

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