The family of a Canadian pastor imprisoned for his faith in North Korea have said they are "very concerned" amid reports he has been undergoing treatment at a hospital since August due to his deteriorating health.
While Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim, leader of Light Presbyterian Church in Toronto, has been receiving treatment for months, his family only recently was informed of his failing health, UPI reported.
The pastor's family had been worried about his health since January when he appeared looking frail in an interview with CNN.
"At that time, there were concerns about his health. At this point, we are very concerned that his health may have declined and those concerns are heightened precisely because we have no information," said Lisa Pak, a spokesperson for Lim's family.
As earlier reported, Pastor Lim was involved in North Korea since 1997 and had established a number of churches and orphanages in the isolated country.
He was arrested last year, and in a confession that appeared to be coerced, the pastor admitted he had attempted to "overturn the social system" by "building a religious state."
At the time of his capture, the pastor had a "very serious health problem, very high blood pressure", his church said.
During a recent interview with CNN, the pastor revealed that 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. Thus far, he has not seen any other prisoners, and is not allowed contact with the outside world.
"I wasn't originally a laborer, so the labor was hard at first," Lim said in Korean through an interpreter. "But now I've gotten used to it."
While charges against Lim had lacked specifics, the pastor said he believes 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 aired earlier this year. "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.
Asked if his biggest crime was speaking badly of the North's leaders, he said: "Yes, I think so."
Despite his bleak circumstances, the pastor 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."
The report notes that when asked what he would like to tell his family, the pastor teared up: "I have realized so keenly how valuable my family is, how precious it is to me," he said. "Family is a precious gift from God. I would like to tell my family I love them so much.
North Korea heads Open Door USA's World Watch List of countries where Christians face the most persecution for the 14th consecutive year now. A report released last month by the Christian Solidarity Worldwide said that there are thousands of Christians suffering from extremely harsh torture in labor camps. In some cases, Christians are hung on a cross over a fire, and at times crushed under a steamroller.
In April, Canada sent a delegation to visit Lim in Pyongyang but did not disclose the details of their visit for Lim's protection.
"The government of Canada is concerned for Mr. Lim's rights and well-being," Joseph Pickerill, spokesman for Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion, said, according to CBC News. "Consular officials are providing assistance to Mr. Lim and his family. We are grateful that we were able to visit him."
Canada has been negotiating the pastor's release, but has said the process will not be easy.