Hyeon Soo Lim emerged on Thursday at a U.S. Air Force base in Japan appearing calm and healthy, a development seen as a sign that North Korea released the Canadian pastor as an offering of goodwill to Western countries at a time when Pyongyang is at the epicentre of global political tensions.
The sight of Mr. Lim walking around with apparent ease, and his family's report that he is believed to be healthy, suggest his release was motivated by political, rather than humanitarian, reasons. It is not known exactly when Mr. Lim, who is in his early 60s, will land back in Canada.
He was freed this week on "sick bail" from a North Korean labour camp after a Canadian delegation, led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's national security adviser Daniel Jean, visited the isolated country to discuss the pastor's case.
The decision comes as Washington and Pyongang trade increasing threats about the possibility of nuclear action, with U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday warning that his previous remarks about North Korea being "met with fire and fury like the world has never seen" may not have been "tough enough." Meanwhile, North Korea vowed to ignite an "enveloping fire" of test missiles, designed to land 30 to 40 kilometres offshore of the U.S. territory of Guam.
North Korea's handling of American prisoner Otto Warmbier, who was released on June 13 but died six days later, had sparked intense criticism in the United States and may have fuelled the political appetite for confronting North Korea over its long-range nuclear missile program.
Under those circumstances, there was thinking that Pyongyang might be eager to release a prisoner in grave health. But Mr. Lim, who is said to have high blood pressure and endured weight loss while in custody, appeared to be in good health, based on the news footage of him in Japan on Thursday.
But the international political tensions over North Korea's nuclear program might have made the regime more willing to release Mr. Lim now, some North Korea observers believe. Under so much pressure from the United States, it might want to appear to be acting reasonably with other countries.
"I think it is possible that North Korea wanted to make some kind of de-icing gesture with Western countries," said Peter Lee, the chief executive of the U.S. branch of the North Korea Strategy Centre.
It's also not the first time that North Korea has released a prisoner for non-health reasons – usually after a series of secret negotiations and on condition that a high-level delegation is dispatched. James Clapper, the former U.S. director of national intelligence, went to Pyongyang to secure the release of two prisoners: Matthew Miller and Kenneth Bae. Former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, both out of office, also conducted such missions. Such delegations help the regime keep face, Mr. Lee said.
Typically, such envoys carry a letter from the national leader – Mr. Clapper, for example, carried a letter from then-president Barack Obama that described the release of two prisoners as a "positive gesture."
Brock University professor Charles Burton, who writes about China and North Korea, said it would be typical for Mr. Trudeau to send such a letter with his envoy. "I think that would have been critical to the success of the whole operation."
Mr. Trudeau's office would not confirm whether the Prime Minister sent a letter or offered any concession in exchange for Mr. Lim's release.
Mr. Lim, who served in one of the largest churches in Canada and travelled to North Korea regularly on humanitarian missions, was sentenced by the country's Supreme Court in December, 2015, to a lifetime of hard labour after being accused of attempting to overthrow the regime.
Paul Evans, a professor at the University of British Columbia's Institute of Asian Research, also cited the Warmbier case as a potential factor in Mr. Lim's release.
But he also said Pyongang could be attempting to re-engage with Canada, and sees an opportunity with the Trudeau government after harsh treatment by the previous Conservative government.
"My sense is that the North Koreans consistently have wanted representation and interaction with Canadian government officials. It is us who have closed the door to the North Koreans," Prof. Evans said.
He also said the country could be fascinated by Mr. Trudeau's ability to manage his relationship with Mr. Trump, and is attempting to expand its diplomatic scope with Washington.
"Some well-informed people are saying that in the midst of bombast from North Korea, that there are signs of a desire for discussions with the outside," Prof. Evans said, adding that it's "really hard to tell."
"If they did want to do that, having Daniel Jean come could have been very useful to them. They would have seen it as exponentially valuable to them."
Lisa Pak, a spokeswoman for the Lim family who grew up with the pastor's son, James, said she believes Canada sent a strong diplomatic message to North Korea by sending Mr. Jean as the Prime Minister's special envoy.
"I really applaud Canada's approach this time," she said. "It was such a foil against all the other negative rhetoric that's been going back and forth."
Ms. Pak said Mr. Lim's family is "relieved, grateful, excited, anxious to see him home," where he will meet his granddaughter for the first time. The family also thanked Mr. Trudeau, Canadian officials and the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, which helps Canada with diplomatic matters in a country where Canada does not have a diplomatic presence.
"There is a long way to go in terms of Reverend Lim's healing, therefore, in the meantime we ask the media for privacy as he reconnects with his loved ones and receives medical attention," the family said in a statement. "Finally, we want to thank the global community for the continued prayers and support and we also ask that the world does not forget the people of North Korea."
Mr. Trudeau on Thursday officially confirmed Mr. Lim's release, almost a day after North Korean media first reported that the pastor had been freed. It is unclear what transpired during that time and the PMO has said it wouldn't comment on an active case.
Joseph Caron, Canada's ambassador to China between 2001 and 2005, said the fact that the North Koreans released information about Mr. Lim before Canada suggests they were "doing this, of course, for their own purposes."
"On the Canadian side – it isn't over until it's over. You're dealing with a regime that is totally unpredictable and quite possibly the … communications decision was, we don't move until everything is in order, and maybe he's even out of the airspace," he said.
Mr. Trudeau said little about what led to Mr. Lim's release – "operational security considerations prevent us from discussing the matter further" – but noted the role of Mr. Jean and Sweden in securing Mr. Lim's release.
With a report from Nathan VanderKlippe in Beijing