A South Korean-Canadian pastor is missing after going on a charity mission to North Korea, leading experts to place responsibility on the country's government, which is known for its harsh treatment of Christian missionaries.
On January 30, Reverend Hyeon Soo Lim, 60, went to North Korea on a humanitarian trip as he had done over a hundred times before, Lisa Pak, a spokesperson for his church, based in Mississauga, Ontario, told CNN.
The pastor was expected to return on February 4 from Rajin, located northeast in the country, where his church supports several charities, including a nursery, orphanage, nursing home, noodle plants and flour mills, according to the Light Korean Presbyterian Church.
However, no one has heard from Rev. Lim since the day after he left, prompting his church to formally request help from Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs, and the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, which, according to the AFP, provides help for citizens of the U.S., Canada and Australia.
At first, it was believed that Rev. Lim was detained as part of the 21-day quarantine for Ebola virus, but fears grew after that period ended on Monday.
Many believe Pyongyang is responsible for the pastor's disappearance, as some of the food charities he is involved with are linked to Jang Song-Thaek, the late uncle of North Korea's bloodthirsty president, Kim Jong-Un. According to previous reports, Jang was executed for treason in December 2012.
Rev. Chun Ki-Won, the director of Durihana, which helps North Korean refugees, told AFP: "As far as I know, he was asked by officials to come to Pyongyang on January 31 before he went incommunicado. We're worried the invitation to Pyongyang was somehow related to his ties to Jang."
Rev. Lim immigrated to Canada from South Korea in 1986 with his wife and son. Described by his congregants as having a "gentle and kind manner," the pastor speaks fluent Korean and leads a 3,000-member church.
Because of his familiarity with the North Korean government, Pak says she does not believe Rev. Lim engaged in proselytizing, which is strictly prohibited in the region.
"He knows the language, he knows the nature of the government, so we don't see that as a legitimate reason that he would be detained," Pak said. "We don't believe that's the way he would have behaved. He's very wise about that."
Over the past year, North Korea and China have placed increasingly harsh restrictions on Christian groups, and several American Christians have been detained by North Korea. Those previously held include Kenneth Bae, who was detained for two years after being accused by North Korea of trying to bring down the government through religious activities. After spending two years in hard labor camps, Bae was eventually released. Another man, Jeffrey Fowle, was arrested after leaving a Bible at a club in North Korea, and was released after five months.
According to a U.N. report this year, there are between 200,000 and 400,000 Christians living among North Korea's 24 million citizens. However, the number is impossible to verify, as Christians are prevented from worshiping openly.