Some time in the last two days of January, Hyeon-soo Lim crossed the land border from China into the north-eastern corner of North Korea. This was nothing particularly special for Mr. Lim, the senior pastor of one of Canada's largest Korean churches. He had been to the Hermit Kingdom more than 100 times before.
He was expected to call home on Feb. 4. When he did not, the church initially did not panic: North Korea has in recent months quarantined visitors for up to 21 days to ensure they do not have the Ebola virus.
But more than a month has passed with no word, and his church is worried Mr. Lim has been detained in a country that has jailed several foreign Christians in recent years. "There has never been this length of delay before," said Lisa Pak, a pastor at Toronto's Light Presbyterian Church, where Mr. Lim is a senior pastor. From the perspective of the church, he has vanished, and has been reported missing to Canadian Foreign Affairs officials. "We have no information," she said.
"He's not a tourist that wandered off. He knows the language, he knows how to behave in a way that's not offensive to the government."
Canada and North Korea have no obvious current tiffs, meaning Pyongyang would have little to gain diplomatically by taking a Canadian. It is possible the bureaucracy of a secretive state has magnified something trivial. "They have a terrible road system. What if he was in an accident with one of their drivers, and then everyone is trying to come up with a story or cover it up?" said Jae Ku, director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Mr. Lim's disappearance nevertheless shows the potential risks of a Canadian diplomatic strategy that has, in the past year, entailed pushing away supposed enemies.
After largely severing ties with North Korea, Canada has no diplomatic representation there. It leans on the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, which told The Globe and Mail in September it was staffed by a single person. Contact can also be made with North Korea through United Nations representatives.
Canada established diplomatic ties under Jean Chrétien in 2001. Stephen Harper suspended most contact with the country in 2010, and his government has imposed sanctions that ban all trade and most other contact with North Korea.
"The ability of Canadian officials to provide consular assistance is extremely limited," said Caitlin Workman, a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada. She declined specific comment on the situation for Mr. Lim, citing privacy constraints. "Consular officials are in contact with family members and are providing assistance," she said.
In the past, closer diplomatic relations helped Ottawa work with Pyongyang.
In 2007, Seoul-based ambassador Ted Lipman, who was accredited in North Korea, spoke Korean and travelled there regularly, was called on when North Korea detained Je Yell Kim. The Edmonton humanitarian worker who had set up dental facilities in the Rason area, which is where Mr. Lim was travelling (both men preached in Presbyterian churches).
Mr. Lipman visited Mr. Kim in detention twice, and negotiated his release in early 2008.
Today, the lack of diplomatic relations puts Ottawa at a potential disadvantage if it is called on to intervene on behalf of a detained citizen.
"It probably is easier if there are diplomatic relations – but it doesn't really guarantee anything," said Jenny Town, managing editor of 38 North, a website that specializes in analyzing North Korea.
The 60-year-old Mr. Lim, who is married with an adult son, has served for 28 years at Light Presbyterian, which has some 3,000 parishioners. It has a heavy focus on missions, supporting evangelical efforts around the world. The church has been active in North Korea for decades, beginning in the 1990s when a famine killed an estimated half-million North Koreans. Ms. Pak said the church defined missions in North Korea as humanitarian work.
The church raised funds for the impoverished country, and supports orphanages, nurseries and a nursing home. Mr. Lim would often take in vitamins, medical supplies and warm clothing.
It is not clear how much better Ottawa would fare if it had more warmth with Pyongyang.
"It's not easy to talk to them," said a former senior Canadian diplomat to Asia who did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of discussing North Korea. "That's why people like Dennis Rodman end up being negotiators."