Detainee Update: Canadian Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim

Stephan Haggard (PIIE) and Kent Boydston (PIIE)
August 11, 2015 7:00 AM

The latest in the North Korea foreign detainee files is a story that came out last week of Canadian Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim. According to The Globe and Mail report, Lim has traveled to North Korea more than one hundred times since 1997 and his Toronto-based church has helped establish an orphanage and nursing home inside the country. He apparently traveled to North Korea in January of this year on a routine humanitarian trip and has been detained in the DPRK since February.

Videos of Lim appeared in North Korean media twice last week, one of an official press conference on July 30, and another at a Sunday worship service at Pongsu Church in Pyongyang on August 2. In the videos a calm and collected—but clearly scripted—Lim confessed to using humanitarianism and love for the North Korean people as a pretext for bringing down the regime, thus insulting the “highest dignity” of the system.

What’s unusual about this case compared to many of the other detainees we’ve covered is that most of the crimes Lim admitted to were not directly related to his activities inside North Korea. Rather, he appeared to be detained for the crimes of speaking out against the regime and aiding North Korean refugees while outside the DPRK. Among the crimes he confessed to were denouncing the DPRK regime and predicting its demise while in South Korea, the US, Japan, Canada, and Brazil; collaborating with US and South Korean officials; and using church funds to support North Korean refugees. Lim’s detention underscores the problem that those in the engagement camp face: collaborating with the DPRK government to try to improve the lives of North Koreans while also maintaining the integrity to “call a spade a spade”, even when outside the country.

We can only speculate on the timeline for Lim’s release but suspect that these recent confessions may be signaling that the North Koreans want to get this problem off their hands. It should be noted that Canada does not have full diplomatic relations with the DPRK and, like the US, relies on Sweden to protect its consular interests inside the country. North Korean authorities also tend to treat “hyphenated” Koreans (Korean-Canadians, Korean-Americans, etc.) harsher as they can often speak the language fluently and know the culture, and are therefore potentially more dangerous.

Previous Posts on the Detainees


Bob King

Steph, Appreciate your good posts on the human rights situation, and it is helpful to have your post providing this update on Pastor Lim Hyeon Soo. You are right that the Canadians rely on the Swedes to deal with Canadian citizen issues in the DPRK, but the Canadians do have diplomatic relations with the DPRK, but they do not have resident ambassadors (similar to the situation with Australia, New Zealand, and several EU countries as well). All the best.

Liars N. Fools

I would hope that the Canadians have a posture like the Americans which explicitly advises Americans from going to North Korea precisely because the DPRK has a record of suddenly and capriciously arresting seemingly innocuous people, particularly those of Korean ethnicity. The Americans also note explicitly that we have no diplomatic relations.


Although diplomatic relations between Canada and DPRK were established in February 2001, they were suspended on May 25th, 2010 in response to the Cheonan investigation.

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Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff
Kent Boydston Former Research Staff