North Korea’s recent decision to free a Canadian-Korean pastor who had been detained for 30 months has sparked further global interest in others imprisoned in the hermit state.
Lim Hyeon-soo was released on “sick bail” Wednesday with the North Korean Central Court citing “humanitarian reasons,” according to the Korean Central News Agency. The 62-year-old South Korean-born Canadian was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2015 on charges of conspiring against the regime.
Lim Hyeon-soo, who pastors the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Toronto, is escorted to his sentencing in Pyongyang on Dec. 16, 2015. Yonhap
Lim’s release comes at a sensitive time for the Korean Peninsula with the North threatening to create an “enveloping fire” in areas surrounding Guam, a key US military outpost in the Pacific Ocean, dismissing President Donald Trump’s warning of “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
The timing has shifted public concerns to six South Korean citizens now held captive in the North in which Pyongyang has been keeping mum about their whereabouts and condition. North Korea has been overall turning a deaf ear to the Moon Jae-in government’s offer to resume inter-Korean dialogue.
The Unification Ministry here has been continuously vowing to step up its efforts to retrieve the prisoners, but doubts are being raised after a prolonged failure to do so.
Experts are expressing skepticism over connecting the release of Lim with other South Korean detainees.
“North Korea is maintaining an affable diplomatic relationship with Canada and probably wants to keep it that way,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Dongguk University in Seoul.
“Even though they are perceived as reckless in many ways, it seems they took Otto Warmbier’s death (in June) into consideration. Unlike Lim, it would be a lot more difficult for South Korean detainees to return home because we are in a different diplomatic relationship (with the North),” Koh said.
“We suspect there are six South Koreans currently detained in North Korea,” a ministry official said Thursday.
Among the six, one is a Christian missionary while three are North Korean defectors allegedly abducted by the state’s agents, according to reports.
“We have been consistently requesting the North Korean government to release and return our citizens held captive there. We will continue to make a full effort by cooperating with the international community,” the official said.
The official added it has no plans at this time to dispatch a special delegation for such purpose.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry echoed the Unification Ministry’s statement saying that it is glad to hear the news of Lim’s release and hopes North Korea will quickly return its South Korean captives back to the arms of their respective families here.
The US has been voicing its concerns over its citizens imprisoned in the North after US college student Warmbier’s death in June.
US Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs spokesperson Grace Choi told Voice Of America on Thursday that Washington would like to see US detainees in the North back home as soon as possible. North Korea is currently holding three US Korean-Americans by force.
Warmbier was transported back to his homeland in a state of “unresponsive wakefulness” after spending 17 months in the North Korean prison for trying to steal a political banner.
North Korean authorities claimed Warmbier’s coma was a result of botulism and a sleeping pill, which drew global ire since it did not correspond with his US medical records.
His death triggered the US State Department to impose a travel ban, which aims to block its citizens from visiting North Korea. The bill will take effect next month.
By Jung Min-kyung (firstname.lastname@example.org