100 days: Family has no word on Canadian pastor held in North Korea

The Rev. Lim traveled into North Korea from China on January 30 with plans to tend to aid projects

Story highlights

  • Hyeon Soo Lim, 60, has visited North Korea numerous times
  • Family in Ontario has not heard from him since late January

(CNN)Friday marked 100 days since the Rev. Hyeon Soo Lim, a Canadian citizen, was detained in North Korea while on a humanitarian trip.

For 100 days, his family has had no update on his condition or what he's been charged with. For 100 days, his family has been without a man they call hardworking and compassionate.
It's an anniversary that no one was celebrating.
    "The family is very much aware all this time has passed and they continue to ask the community for prayers," said Lisa Pak, a leader at the church led by Lim, who spoke on behalf of the family.
    "Their heart is really on edge, but we're always hopeful," she said.

    'They're just not picking up'

    Lim spent his 60th birthday in North Korean detention, missing the traditional celebration his family had planned for the milestone year, known as 'Hwangab' in Korean.
    In April, Light Korean Presbyterian Church, the 3,000-person congregation in the Toronto area led by Lim, celebrated Easter without him.
    How he observed the holidays in the country, the family has no idea -- working through the Canadian government, the family has heard next to nothing on the status of the pastor.
    "We're constantly trying to reach out," Pak said. "It's like your constantly calling [North Korea] on the phone and they're just not picking up."

    A routine trip

    Lim traveled into North Korea from China on January 30 with plans to tend to aid projects established by his church in the northeastern city of Rajin, including an orphanage, a nursery and a nursing home. Pak said it was a "routine" trip, one the minister's made over 100 times.
    His family had expected to hear from him on February 4, when he was scheduled to leave. They never did.
    The Canadian government, which has limited diplomatic relations with North Korea, first acknowledged Lim's status with a statement in March. Over two months later, the official word from Lim's country of citizenship remains the same:
    "We are aware of a Canadian citizen detained in North Korea," Caitlin Workman, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, said on Friday.
    "Consular officials are in contact with family members and are providing assistance to them. I'm afraid that for privacy reasons, we are not able to comment further."

    North Korean justice

    Lim is not the only Westerner to be detained in North Korea.
    New York University student, Won-moon Joo, 21, originally from South Korea, was arrested after entering the country in April.
    Also last month, American citizen Sandra Suh was released from detention and deported to the United States after admitting to "plot-breeding and propaganda against the DPRK," according to North Korean state-run media and propaganda outlet KCNA.
    And in 2014, three Americans were released to the United States after spending several months imprisoned under Kim Jong Un's regime.
    One of the three, Jeffrey Fowle, was arrested by North Korean authorities after he left a Bible at a club in the northern part of the country. Proselytizing is a crime in North Korea.
    "We don't believe that's the way he would have behaved. He's very wise about that," Pak said about Lim. "He knows the language, he knows the nature of the government, so we don't see that as a legitimate reason that he would be detained."
    The Lim family does not know why he was arrested or what he has been charged with.
    "North Korea has a very strict and very extensive penal code," said Jean Lee, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington who has no direct knowledge of Lim's case.
    According to Lee, most foreigners that are detained in the country are accused of crimes against the state, which are extraterritorial, meaning that they are prosecutable in North Korea even if they were committed outside of the state.
    "It's only been recently that they've had the ability to really track what we do outside the country," said Lee, who is a former Associated Press bureau chief in Pyongyang. "The last couple years they've gotten much better at using the Internet to keep track of the people that they interact with."

    A community full of prayer

    Lim moved to Canada from South Korea in 1986 with his wife and son, Sung.
    Since then, he dedicated his life to humanitarian work, leading trips with his parishioners around the world, Pak said. He had returned from doing work in the Brazilian Amazon just weeks before his trip to North Korea.
    It was in North Korea, Pak said, where his compassion lay the most.
    "How can we not care about people in North Korea?" she said. "Everybody knows somebody who's tied to North Korea in terms of family and history. It's deep in the heart, especially of the older generation."
    At Light Korean Presbyterian Church, based in Mississuaga, Ontario, the absence of its head pastor is felt deeply as well.
    Every worship service, every gathering, Pak said, includes a prayer for the Rev. Lim.
    Special prayer meetings take place every Saturday morning.
    And a group of church members participate in a fasting chain, struggling, and praying for the return of their leader.