The son of the Toronto-area pastor who served more than two years of a life sentence with hard labour in North Korea for anti-state activities says his father will worship with his congregation on Sunday morning, following a day of rest and reunion with his family.
“It was surreal from the beginning to witness my father coming off an airplane after two-and-a-half years,” James Lim told reporters at a press conference on Saturday. “His faith has grown stronger.”
Hyeon Soo Lim, 62, landed in Ontario on Saturday morning, according to the family’s spokesperson Lisa Pak. He had not seen his relatives in person since his 2015 arrest on a missionary trip where he is said to have been mainly working to improve food security within the insular communist state.
North Korean authorities freed Hyeon Soo Lim earlier this week. A six-member Canadian diplomatic envoy travelled to Pyongyang to help secure his release.
James Lim said his father first embraced his mother, and then went straight towards his infant granddaughter, who was born while he was imprisoned, when the family was reunited.
“It was just incredible. Just to see two people that I love more than anybody else in the world finally meet and embrace,” James Lim said. “You play in your head many times what that moment is going to be like. It’s far greater than anything you could have imagined.”
Pak said the family still does not know why North Korean authorities released Hyeon Soo Lim, or what led to his arrest. She estimates the pastor travelled to the country over 110 times to do similar work over the course of two decades.
“My best guess is that they were concerned about his health, and so they released him,” Pak said.
James Lim said the family relied heavily on their Christian values and never gave up hope during Hyeon Soo Lim’s imprisonment. He said watching his father’s taped confession on North Korean state television and the death of U.S. university student Otto Warmbier tested the family’s faith.
Warmbier spent 17 months in a North Korean prison for allegedly taking a propaganda poster. He fell into a coma, and was medically evacuated to the U.S. on June 13. Warmbier died days later.
“The thing that we were really concerned about was the terrible and unfortunate passing of Otto Warmbier. That was unprecedented,” James Lim said. “That placed a huge amount of not only burden, but urgency to push the government.”
James Lim said his father is grateful to Canadian officials for their efforts to bring him home, adding that he is generally in good spirit and health. He said he is probably looking forward to returning to his typically Canadian pleasures; coffee, doughnuts, and ice fishing.
“He is so happy to be home,” James Lim said. “I think now more than ever, he has never felt more Canadian.”
‘A man on a mission’
Pastor Minho Song of the Young Nak Korean Presbyterian Church of Toronto describes Hyeon Soo Lim as “a man on a mission” who would stop at nothing to help North Korea’s poor.
“Once he sets his mind on something, he will go no matter what the cost,” Song told CTV News Channel on Saturday. “He really loves the people of North Korea, especially those who are marginalized and those who are poor.”
Song said his friend and fellow pastor worked tirelessly for many years, dividing his time between Canada and North Korea with remarkable energy.
“He would preach on Sunday and then he would take the evening flight to North Korea . . . he would come back Friday or Saturday in time to preach and look after his flock,” he said.
James Lim said his family has always put the needs of everyday North Koreans ahead of their distaste for the Kim dynasty’s brutality.
“Our family’s position is that we should never forget about the people of North Korea,” he said.
Asked if his father will ever return to the country, he said “not in this lifetime.”