TORONTO (Reuters) - A head pastor of large Canadian church has failed to return from a humanitarian mission to North Korea, and the Canadian government has reached out to try to locate him, his Toronto-based church said on Monday.
Reverend Hyeon Soo Lim, 60, has made hundreds of trips to North Korea, where he helps oversee a nursing home, a nursery and an orphanage in the Rajin region, said Lisa Pak, a spokeswoman for the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in suburban Toronto.
North Korea and China have clamped down on Christian groups in the last year, and several American Christians have been detained by North Korea.
Pak said they have not heard from Lim since Jan. 31 but were not initially worried because he is an experienced traveler and knows the country well. They also thought he could be caught up by North Korea’s quarantine of foreign travelers who may have been exposed to Ebola.
North Korea ended the quarantine program on Monday.
“This is not an unusual trip for him ... he’s not a tourist who got lost, he speaks Korean, he’s been there many times,” said Pak. “We didn’t want to cause unnecessary hysteria, just make sure he is OK. He’s very non-political; he just wants to help the people.”
The 3,000-member church, where Lim has been head pastor for 28 years, has done humanitarian work in North Korea since about 1997, Pak said. Lim immigrated to Canada from South Korea in 1986 and has a wife and grown son, she said.
Lim left Toronto on Jan. 27, flew to South Korea, and planned to visit China and North Korea during his trip, Pak said. After hearing from Lim on Jan. 31, the church expected him to be out of contact until Feb. 4. When he did not contact the church, it waited another 21 days to allow for a possible Ebola quarantine.
The Canadian government said consular officials are in contact with Lim’s family members and have offered consular assistance but declined to comment on Lim’s situation.
Ottawa advises against all travel to North Korea.
The North Korean government takes a hard line against proselytizing, seeing religion as a threat to the Kim family, which has ruled it since the end of World War Two and been portrayed as demigods in state propaganda.
A U.N. report this year cited estimates that between 200,000 and 400,000 of North Korea’s 24 million people are Christians. The number is impossible to verify because most Christians cannot worship openly.
Reporting by Andrea Hopkins