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Unravelling the mystery behind the detention of reverend Lim

This story was originally published in May 2015.

When Rev. Hyeon Soo Lim wanted to turn people's hearts and wallets toward North Korea, he often turned to a Bible verse. "Those who give to the poor will lack nothing," says the exhortation from the Book of Proverbs, which he drew on frequently in his sermons. "But those who close their eyes to them receive many curses."

Over nearly two decades, Mr. Lim persuaded many to help, building himself and his church, Mississauga's Korean-language Light Presbyterian Church, into an important global conduit for donated funds into North Korea. Few others have been as successful in leaping the border into the Hermit Kingdom, which Mr. Lim visited roughly 110 times.

He nurtured connections there with highly placed people and won special liberties to travel through the closed country with relative freedom.

He sent in thousands of tonnes of food, tens of thousands of blankets and items of winter clothing, hundreds of thousands of eyeglasses and millions of dollars. He built ramen and wig factories, schools, nursing homes, gas stations, bathhouses, farms and fishing operations. Even as Canada imposed increasingly severe sanctions to choke off trade with a regime that visits horrific abuses on its own people, Mr. Lim laid plans for even bigger business investments in the country. He wanted to buy the top hotel in Pyongyang and hoped to spark a North Korean agricultural revolution.

"If God allows, we will soon need 30,000 people for the ministry, and in a few years, North Korea will be evangelized and recover its past glory," he said in a 2010 sermon posted online.

Then in late January, he crossed the land border into the northeastern corner of the country and vanished. After more than a month of silence, North Korea confirmed to Canadian authorities in early March that he had been detained. Speculation has abounded – but no one knows why he was taken. When North Korea has detained people in the past, it has often used its media to make public the reasons.

With Mr. Lim, it has said nothing, leaving a Korean diaspora around the world shattered and uncertain about his well-being and future. "The only thing we can do right now is just pray from him every day," said Rev. Hun Young Jo, a pastor at Great Light Korean Methodist Church in Anaheim, Calif., who has known Mr. Lim for 46 years.

The Canadian government has sent at least two letters to the North Korean mission to the United Nations in New York asking for Canadian officials to be granted consular access to Mr. Lim, whose whereabouts and condition remain unknown. It has received no reply, The Globe and Mail has learned. (Asked for comment, the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development said: "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.")

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has personally petitioned for the release of other Canadians locked up abroad – including, recently, a Christian couple detained in China – but has said nothing publicly about Mr. Lim even though the pastor met with Mr. Harper's senior staff only last year.

Mr. Lim's church colleagues say his work in North Korea was all in service of humanitarian good. But in pursuing for-profit businesses that involved importing boats, computers and other materials to North Korea, Mr. Lim also trod into a potential grey zone that may complicate Canada's response. Canadian diplomats in Seoul have in the past raised concern with Ottawa about Mr. Lim's work potentially violating sanctions, according to a person with direct knowledge of the situation, who asked not to be named because of the political sensitivity of Mr. Lim's detention.

The Korean community has enjoyed high-level political access to the Harper government, which has actively pursued better relations with ethnic communities. Korean-Canadians were among the groups Jason Kenney, now the Minister for Multiculturalism, reached out to in early 2006, before the election that first brought the Conservatives into power. Three years later, Mr. Harper appointed Yonah Martin as the first Korean-Canadian to the Senate and has referred to her in speeches as his "friend."

With Ms. Martin's help, Mr. Lim was able to arrange two meetings with Mr. Harper late last year to discuss help for North Korean refugees in Canada. Both were cancelled because of other commitments – one so Mr. Harper could attend the funeral of Corporal Nathan Cirillo, killed on sentry duty at the National War Memorial – but Mr. Lim and a colleague met instead with senior political staff.

"We had a meeting in the Prime Minister's office, his own office," said Sok Dong-Ki, former president of the Korean Church Council of Ontario, who was in the meeting.

Neither the Prime Minister's Office nor Ms. Martin responded to requests for comment.

Even in his own community, Mr. Lim's work was controversial. Some in his 3,000-member congregation disagreed with the way donations were being used to fund business ventures inside North Korea, according to people familiar with the church. The question of whether profit-making can be humanitarian in nature is a key one, since Canadian sanctions exempt work by non-governmental organizations "for the purpose of safeguarding of human life, disaster relief, stabilization or the providing of food, medicine, medical supplies or equipment."

Mr. Lim spent years working in North Korea before UN sanctions were first imposed in 2006; Canada's most stifling constraints on trade were only imposed in 2013, and the Canadian government has not prosecuted sanctions cases in court. "We don't have a judicial guidance on the meaning of some of the terms in sanctions, which makes it a very grey area," said Richard Wagner, a senior partner with Norton Rose Fulbright Canada. "Sanctions are a political instrument. They're not a legal instrument for the most part."

Light Presbyterian Church spokeswoman Lisa Pak acknowledged that donations supported profitable investments in North Korea. "All profits [were] used to support orphanages and reinvested to continuing the projects," she said in an e-mail. With its fishing business, for example, the church's aim has been "to teach a man to fish so he can eat [for] a lifetime rather than to just give him a fish so he can eat only for a day."

But Mr. Lim also parlayed close ties with the North Korean regime into VIP status and used that status to help others secure entry visas and conduct his own work that went far beyond traditional humanitarian assistance. His activities renew questions over the extent to which foreign humanitarian work in a totalitarian country such as North Korea supports a heavily militarized nuclear state.

"There's a price to pay" for doing good in the country, said Jack Kim, a Toronto activist for North Korean human rights, and that includes the possibility that money earmarked for good can be diverted "straight to the regime."

A photograph released by the Light Presbyterian Church shows Rev. Hyeon Soo Lim, who has not been seen since January, engaged in humanitarian work in North Korea. The identities of other individuals seen here were concealed by the church. Several people approached by the Globe and Mail in regard to Rev. Lim’s detention in North Korea spoke of the highly sensitive nature of the case. HANDOUT

Touched by the famine

Mr. Lim grew up in Seoul, where his father held an office job and his mother worked at a supermarket run by his sisters. It was a Christian family and as a young man, Mr. Lim attended a devout church that produced numerous pastors and missionaries. By the time Mr. Jo, the California pastor, got to know him in high school, it was already clear to the two of them that “we were going to do God’s work,” he said.

Mr. Lim was active with Campus Crusade for Christ, an evangelical Christian organization, and moved to Canada in January, 1986, “as part of a missionary group,” Mr. Jo said. Mr. Lim studied theology at Knox College, a Toronto seminary of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, and joined Light Presbyterian Church, where he became a senior pastor several years later.

Though his father was born in North Korea, his own interest in the country did not emerge until 1996, in the midst of a four-year famine that killed an estimated 500,000 to 600,000 people. “It was really heartbreaking to see people dying. That’s why he decided to do missionary work in North Korea,” Mr. Jo said.

“People around him were quite concerned and thought it could be risky.” But Mr. Lim was determined to help, soliciting donations to buy rice and corn in China, which he had loaded onto train cars and shipped into North Korea.

The effort soon grew, expanding into a factory that could make bread out of the raw ingredients imported from China and, as the years progressed, berry farms and far more.

He saw North Koreans as “brothers who share the same blood. He wanted to help people in the North to live,” Mr. Jo said. “That’s why he started businesses – to actually help them become self-sufficient.”

The extent and nature of Mr. Lim’s work in North Korea extends over so many years and so many different industries that it is difficult to completely tabulate. Light Presbyterian provided a list of more than a dozen activities he was involved in. But it did not respond to detailed questions submitted by The Globe and Mail, and blocked attempts to interview people who worked closely with Mr. Lim. The church was not alone in declining comment; a series of people who do education and humanitarian work in North Korea, some of them alongside Mr. Lim, also declined comment, saying the situation was highly sensitive and they did not want to endanger Mr. Lim by speaking out.

A photograph released by the Light Presbyterian Church shows Rev. Hyeon Soo Lim, who has not been seen since January, engaged in humanitarian work in North Korea. The identities of other individuals seen here were concealed by the church. Several people approached by the Globe and Mail in regard to Rev. Lim’s detention in North Korea spoke of the highly sensitive nature of the case. HANDOUT

Big ambitions

The Globe gleaned details of Mr. Lim’s life and activities from church newsletters, sermons posted to YouTube, detailed notes from a person who attended one of his speeches in Canada, e-mail conversations posted online by an English-language church affiliated with Light Presbyterian, and through interviews with people in Toronto, California, South Korea, Russia and New Zealand.

What emerges is a picture of a man eager to out-compete other groups in building influence in North Korea, paid for with significant donations he secured from church groups and wealthy donors in Canada, the United States, South Korea and elsewhere.

Among the biggest of Mr. Lim’s ambitions: “We are also in the process of acquiring the Taedonggang Hotel, the number one hotel in Pyongyang,” he wrote in a 2012 column in The Sisa Hankyoreh News, a Toronto community newspaper. He intended to buy the hotel in conjunction with planting berries on 400 acres of land to raise local incomes. “These two projects amount to more than $30-million,” he wrote in the report.

“Other small and large projects are also under way.”

Those included building at least one gasoline filling station, complete with a car wash; a bathhouse with room for 2,000 people; and a significant fishing fleet that included 50 small boats and two larger vessels, imported from Yemen. The fuel alone to sail those vessels – called Agape 1 and Agape 2 – from the Gulf of Aden cost roughly $100,000, he said in a 2010 speech. (Agape is one of the Greek words for love.) The Globe and Mail obtained detailed notes of the three-hour speech from a person who was in attendance. In it, he mentioned signing a fisheries agreement for the East Sea, also known as the Sea of Japan. Fishing was a central element of Mr. Lim’s work. His church has said the fishing endeavour was launched “in response to a need for healthy proteins,” but has subsequently been suspended “because of limited energy resources and lack of adequate infrastructure.”

Mr. Lim said he was working with what he called the biggest seed company in the United States to provide seeds for wheat farming. He imported pigs to North Korea, exported berries to South Korea and established an investment company.

Though he dreamed big, it’s not clear how many of his grandest ambitions came to fruition. He spoke about investing in jewellery processing and launching a retail store in Pyongyang – but along with the hotel purchase, it’s not clear those plans were ever borne out. They nonetheless speak to the scale of the pastor’s enthusiasm, and his desire to operate in sectors far from what is typical for mission and humanitarian work.

Even his smaller projects had a habit of growing in size. A plan to import ramen noodles resulted in 600 truckloads being imported from China. An effort to feed workers building a hydro dam brought in 5,000 tonnes of food. (An average American, who eats far more than an average North Korean, consumes a single tonne over the course of an entire year.) Mr. Lim supported a factory making wigs and helped import 800,000 eyeglasses, worth $20-million, to North Korea, he wrote in the 2012 newspaper column.

He helped build at least two daycare centres, three homes for seniors and an elementary school. He gave a vehicle to a North Korean goat milk farm, and provided assistance for the country’s speedskaters to train in Canada and travel to the Asian Winter Olympics in Kazakhstan.

It’s not clear which of Mr. Lim’s projects were done through his Light Presbyterian Church, and which were his own initiatives. Though his own writings discuss millions of dollars in church donations to North Korea, Canadian charitable organization filings made by the church do not include the country as one of the areas where it works. He secured significant donations from church groups and wealthy donors in the United States.

Light Presbyterian is hardly the only outside group to build businesses alongside humanitarian work in North Korea. Numerous aid groups have built small factories and assisted in agriculture. The Unification Church, whose members are often called the Moonies, is a joint investor in Pyeonghwa Motors, which builds and sells SUVs, luxury cars and pick-up trucks in North Korea. Mr. Lim is “not the first person to use a church as a shell or structure for business operations,” said Daniel Pinkston, Seoul-based deputy project director with International Crisis Group, an anti-conflict advocacy.

Churches are among the only groups willing to countenance working in a place where doing business “doesn’t make any financial or economic sense. The North Koreans will never allow you to repatriate your revenue or profit,” said Leonid Petrov, a Korea expert at the Australian National University.

The value in building businesses lies in giving market skills to people, in turn providing “North Koreans independence to stay away from the regime,” said Mr. Kim, the Toronto rights activist. “Even anyone who wants to overturn the regime would have a hard time saying, ‘Oh, giving the North Koreans the capacity to fish is a particularly bad thing.’”

People take part during a prayer service for Reverend Hyeon Soo Lim, inside a chapel at the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Mississauga, March 9, 2015. REUTERS

Need for caution

Even among church and humanitarian groups, Mr. Lim was unusual, forging ahead in areas where others practised caution. (Proselytizing is illegal in North Korea.)

Several years ago, Stuart Vogel, a Presbyterian pastor in Auckland, gathered donations to send computers into North Korean schools. To avoid trouble, he met with New Zealand foreign affairs officials to make the “case that they were clearly only school computers, they couldn’t be used for anything military.” The government nonetheless told him the computers would breach sanctions. Some of the money was used to buy textbooks instead.

“Everything, for both practical and moral reasons should be totally above board,” Mr. Vogel said.

One of Mr. Lim’s biggest projects was the construction of a five-storey building for the Pyongyang Computer and English Refreshing Centre. Run by the North Korean government, computer instruction is one of its main goals, alongside training local teachers in English. Light Presbyterian sends in groups of volunteers three or four times each year to help.

Jamie Kim, a Light Presbyterian member who runs a North Korea-focused organization that has partnered on the centre, defended the church’s work as “nothing out of the ordinary.” He pointed to the Christian roots of Harvard and Yale; Western missionaries also played central roles in establishing some of South Korea’s top universities.

He called Christians “ambassadors” to North Korea who are building relationships and understanding. “A lot of good things can come out of that, rather than just isolating and stigmatizing a given country,” he said.

He rejected claims that the church, in its vast dealings, was helping to prop up a government the UN has accused of horrifying crimes against its own people.

“We may not agree with the leadership of the country, but that doesn’t mean we should punish the children, or the women, or people who really need our help,” he said.

Yet in North Korea, it’s often difficult to untangle what helps the impoverished and what aids Kim Jong-un, the country’s leader. Three people with North Korean humanitarian experience said it’s not uncommon for local officials to tell their communities donated church goods are homage to the country’s leadership – transforming a humanitarian gesture into a stroke of pro-regime propaganda.

North Korea is a difficult place to work, where government officials control what humanitarian groups can and cannot do, and sometimes make requests of outsiders that can impose challenging demands.

Still, people who have spent time in the country struggled to understand the humanitarian purpose behind some of Mr. Lim’s work. He built a bathhouse in response to the wish of a local official, he said in the 2010 speech. Some of his activities brought him close to the military, such as the construction of a veterans’ hospital, which the church also supplied with medical equipment.

The gas station he helped build in Hamhung, North Korea’s second-largest city, raises further questions. When it was completed in 2012, it was the biggest filling station in town, complete with a car wash. Gas is a vital component of fuelling tractors and fishing vessels – meaning there could be benevolent ends – but North Korea already makes agriculture a priority, giving it importance in gas allocation second only to the military.

And though private-car ownership is on the rise, in North Korea cars belong largely to the elite. A gas station would be “not so much humanitarian assistance, but business,” said Valery Sukhinin, who served as Russia’s ambassador to North Korea from 2007 to 2012 and now teaches at the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations. He was not familiar with the gas station opened by Mr. Lim. But, he said, “The North Koreans have their own petrol. It’s rather expensive, of course. But if you have money, it’s not a problem to get it.”

A man puts his hand on a Korean Bible during a prayer service for Reverend Hyeon Soo Lim, inside a chapel at the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Mississauga, March 9, 2015. REUTERS

Difficulties for Ottawa

The feeling of unease came to Mr. Jo last year in his prayers. “It was like a message from God,” he says, a sense that Mr. Lim “should perhaps visit less. Many people suggested it to him, not just me.”

He doesn’t know why, although the politics of the country, which are inscrutable at the best of times, have looked decidedly unstable in recent months.

Pyongyang has in the past been willing to give back those it holds, including U.S. journalists and missionaries. But it has struck a more obstinate note of late. North Korea is currently holding two South Korean pastors it has called spies. A third South Korean man, a missionary, was detained in 2013 and has been sentenced to a life of hard labour. In April, North Korea also expelled the country director for German Agro Action, a rural development agency active in the country since 1997.

It’s not clear why – and the information void has sparked theories as to what might lie behind Mr. Lim’s detention.

He had, in the past year, lobbied the Canadian government on behalf of North Korean defectors, offering support for a group that regularly draws Pyongyang’s ire. Mr. Sok worries he was “detained in North Korea because he was so actively involved with that.”

The sheer breadth of his work also likely placed him in contact with an array of officials and factions, perhaps exposing him to risk of fallout from internal power struggles.

Perhaps his descriptions of the often-desperate realities of life in North Korea “hit a nerve with the present authorities,” said Kwang ho Song, a former journalist living in Toronto who has been to North Korea eight times. The country’s defence minister was reportedly purged last week – initial reports said he was executed – for insulting leader Kim Jong-un.

Whatever the case, his detention places Ottawa in a potentially difficult position.

“There will probably be some demands – they may ask Prime Minister Harper to come and kowtow in front of the great leader, Kim Jong-un” before they let Mr. Kim go, said Prof. Petrov, the Australian academic. Or they might “ask your government to lift the sanctions, and give some investments and developmental aid.”

It’s also possible Pyongyang wants nothing that severe: History has shown that in situations like these, “they wish only for normal relations with your country, and some humanitarian assistance if it’s possible,” said Mr. Sukhinin, the former ambassador.

What’s more clear is what Mr. Lim himself wanted. He intended to step down this year from Light Presbyterian and, free from his church duties, hoped to spend more time in the country he had devoted himself to.

“He was going to retire early and be totally involved in missionary work for North Korea. That was his plan,” said Mr. Jo. “He was planning to expand the scale of the current missionary work and businesses.”

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