Rev. Hyeon Soo Lim, a Canadian pastor who was serving a life sentence of hard labor in North Korea, was released today, the country's official KCNA news agency has claimed.
"Rim Hyon Su, a Canadian civilian, was released on sick bail according to the decision of the Central Court of the DPRK on August 9, 2017, from the humanitarian viewpoint," it said, using the country's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
In a statement, a spokesperson for his family expressed relief over the pastor's return.
"We are relieved to hear that Reverend Lim is on his way home to finally reunite with his family and meet his grand daughter for the first time," Lisa Pak said in statement to CNN.
"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 expressed gratitude to the Canadian, North Korean and Swedish governments.
"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," the statement read.
Pastor Lim, 61, had been doing humanitarian work in North Korea since 1997 and had visited the isolated country more than 100 times prior to his arrest, according to his Toronto church, the 3,000-member Light Korean Presbyterian Church.
North Korea's highest court said the South Korean-born pastor had attempted to overthrow the government and undermine its social system with "religious activities" for the past 18 years. At the time of his capture in 2015, the pastor had a "very serious health problem, very high blood pressure", his church said.
Yesterday, a Canadian government delegation traveled to Pyongyang to discuss Pastor Lim's case: "Pastor Lim's health and well-being remain of utmost importance to the government of Canada as we continue to engage on this case," a Trudeau spokesperson said. "As this is an active case, we will not provide further comment at this time."
One month into his sentence, Lim told CNN he works eight hours a day, six days a week, with rest breaks, digging holes for the planting of apple trees in the prison orchard. He had not seen any other prisoners, and was not allowed contact with the outside world.
While charges against Lim had lacked specifics, the pastor said he believed they stemmed from his continued criticism of the North's three generations of leaders.
"I admit I've violated this government's authority, system and order," Lim said in the interview. "I used to think they deified their leaders too much, but as I read the memoirs of both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, they never called themselves gods," he added.
The pastor also said he asked the authorities for a copy of the Bible, and revealed that he continues to pray for the unification of North and South Korea, and that no one will ever have to suffer through the same experience he has.
"I hope I can go home someday," Lim said. "Nobody knows if I will ever go home, but that is my hope. I miss my family. I am longing to see them again, and my congregation."
CBC notes that a number of Christian missionaries have been arrested in the past, with some of them only allowed to return home after intervention by high-profile US political figures.
North Korea is ranked #1 on Open Door USA's World Watch List of countries where Christians face the most persecution.