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Toronto pastor released from North Korea believed to be in good health: family

Toronto pastor Hyeon Soo Lim is believed to be healthy and “not in critical condition,” a family spokeswoman said Thursday, as the former North Korean detainee makes his way back to Canada.

It is not known when or where Mr. Lim is expected to land following his release Wednesday from a North Korean labour camp. But family spokeswoman Lisa Pak said Mr. Lim, who suffers from high blood pressure and is believed to have lost a significant amount of weight, is expected to arrive in Canada in relatively stable health.

“He’s healthy and not in critical condition,” Ms. Pak told The Globe and Mail on Thursday, adding that there is a “need to have more clear [medical] examinations” upon Mr. Lim’s return.

NK News, a website that covers North Korea, reported on Thursday that a rare morning flight had departed Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport for the Yokota air base in Japan, leading to speculation that Mr. Lim was aboard. CBC News released video of what it described as Mr. Lim, his head shaved bald, arriving on the tarmac in Japan. The Prime Minister’s Office had no comment, citing operational security.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday officially confirmed Mr. Lim’s release, almost 24 hours after North Korean media first reported that the pastor had been freed on “sick bail.” It is unclear what transpired during that time, and the PMO has said it wouldn’t comment on an active case.

Mr. Lim’s release from prison came after a Canadian delegation, led by Mr. Trudeau’s national security adviser Daniel Jean, arrived in North Korea to discuss the pastor’s case. Mr. Trudeau also cited the role of Sweden, which has an embassy in Pyongyang, in helping to secure Mr. Lim’s release.

“I am pleased and relieved to confirm that Pastor Lim has been released from jail in North Korea and that he will soon be reunited with his family and friends in Canada,” Mr. Trudeau said in an early morning statement.

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, which aids Canada on diplomatic matters in the rogue country. The Canadian representatives arrived in Pyongyang in a government plane, according to a source with knowledge of the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity because of its sensitivity.

“The government of Canada was actively engaged on Mr. Lim’s case at all levels,” Mr. Trudeau said.

“Pastor Lim’s health and well-being remain of utmost importance to the government of Canada, and we are working to ensure that he receives any required medical attention.”

Mr. Lim’s release comes at a time when Pyongyang is at the centre of high-pitched international tension over its nuclear-missile program, which has dominated attention from Washington to Beijing. On Thursday, North Korea said it was completing plans to fire four intermediate-range missiles over Japan to land near the U.S. Pacific island territory of Guam, in an unusually detailed threat that further heightened tensions with the United States.

Mr. Lim’s family is “relieved, grateful, excited, anxious to see him home,” Ms. Pak said in a statement Thursday, which also thanked Canadian and Swedish officials.

“We are relieved to hear that Reverend Lim is on his way home to finally reunite with his family and meet his granddaughter for the first time,” the statement said.

“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. 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.”

It’s unclear whether the international tensions swirling around North Korea had any effect on the case of Mr. Lim, about whom family and friends were growing increasingly worried. But many experts have drawn comparisons to the case of Otto Warmbier, an American university student who fell into a coma while imprisoned in North Korea. Mr. Warmbier was released June 13, but died six days later in the United States.

It’s possible that Mr. Lim’s release might be North Korea’s way of sending a goodwill message at a time of high tension, to try to portray itself as a reasonable country that can negotiate, said Steven Denney, a doctoral fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs’ Asian Institute.

“I think that North Korea understood that it was on thinner ice than usual,” he said, adding that it’s possible the regime is being more cautious with Mr. Lim’s health problems.

With files from Reuters

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