Fears for Canadian pastor missing in North Korea

Seoul (AFP) - A Canadian pastor who has reportedly gone missing in North Korea was invited to the capital Pyongyang just before his disappearance, a prominent Seoul activist said on Tuesday.

Reverend Hyeon Soo Lim, of the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Toronto, has not been heard from since January 31, just after he arrived in North Korea via China, according to media reports in Canada and South Korea.

Reverend Chun Ki-Won, the director of Durihana, a South Korean Christian missionary organisation helping North Korean refugees, said Lim was one of the most influential Christian missionaries operating in the North.

The 60-year-old Lim had led many aid missions there involving work with orphanage houses, nursing homes and food plants, the reverend said.

"As far as I know, he was asked by officials to come to Pyongyang on January 31 before he went incommunicado," Chun, a personal acquaintance of Lim's, told AFP.

Chun said the information had come from other members of the close-knit circle of ethnic Korean missionaries in the US and Canada who are involved in aid projects in the North.

Lim's lack of communication was initially attributed to the 21-day quarantine imposed on all foreign visitors to North Korea to prevent any outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus.

But that period would have ended on February 21, after which there was still no news, Chun said.

Chun noted that some of the food-related projects Lim was involved in -- ranging from noodle plants to flour mills -- were linked to associates of Jang Song-Thaek, the purged uncle of leader Kim Jong-Un.

Jang is known to have led many joint economic projects before he was dramatically arrested and executed for treason in December 2012.

"We're worried the invitation to Pyongyang was somehow related to his ties to Jang," Chun said, adding that Lim had rarely travelled to the capital on previous trips.

Lisa Pak of the Light Korean Presbyterian Church told the Toronto Star newspaper that Lim had travelled to North Korea hundreds of times.

"Every now and then (there has been) a delay here or there but never to this extent," Pak said.

The Canadian government was not immediately available to confirm the disappearance.

Ottawa advises its citizens against travel to North Korea.

Although religious freedom is enshrined in the North Korean constitution, it does not exist in practice and religious activity is severely restricted to officially-recognised groups linked to the government.

Pyongyang views foreign missionaries with deep suspicion, although it allows access to some who undertake humanitarian work.

However, anyone caught engaging in any unauthorised activities would be subject to immediate arrest.

A number of missionaries -- mostly US citizens -- have been arrested in North Korea in the past with some of them allowed to return home after interventions by high-profile US figures.

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