HONG KONG – An Australian missionary who carried Christian pamphlets into North Korea has been detained there, his family said Wednesday.
John Short, 75, has lived in Hong Kong for 50 years and has been arrested previously in China for evangelizing.
Short was questioned and then arrested in his Pyongyang hotel on Sunday, a day after he arrived in the North Korean capital, his family said in a statement.
“He was carrying Korean literature on his person, and that could be the reason, but again I don’t know,” said his wife, Karen. She said she learned about his detention from a friend traveling with him in a regular tour group who was able to return to China on Tuesday.
While North Korea’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, in practice only sanctioned services are tolerated by the government.
Last year, American missionary Kenneth Bae was sentenced to 15 years hard labor after being accused of committing hostile acts in North Korea.
Karen Short said she was initially “shocked” when she learned of her husband’s detention. “I know he’s courageous, and he’s in God’s hands,” she said in an interview at the offices of the Christian publishing company the couple run. “I believe that at the right time that the right thing will happen, and he will be released.”
Short, from Barmera, South Australia, has been arrested multiple times while evangelizing in mainland China, which he started visiting after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, according to a biography on a Christian website, Gospel Attract.
He was banned from entering China for nearly two years after his second arrest in 1996. Authorities later let him back in, and he was arrested several more times for “speaking out about the brutality against Chinese Christians,” said the site.
Short’s wife said he was visiting North Korea for the second time. His first trip was a year ago, “so he knew what he was going into,” she said. She said he wanted to be there “rubbing shoulders with people as much as possible.”
“There’s risk involved. He knew that too, but when you know what you must do, you do it,” said his wife.
“It’s not an open country, and it doesn’t welcome Christians — yes, we realize that,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean we stand by and don’t do anything, because we care for the situation and we pray about it, but sometimes you have to do more than talk.”
North Korean officials are refusing to take the tour company’s calls, the family statement said.
Short’s Chinese traveling companion in North Korea, Wang Chong, said they first came to authorities’ attention during a visit to a Buddhist temple.
Wang, a Christian, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. in Beijing that Short left a Christian pamphlet in the temple, which a local tour guide reported to security officials. Officials later found a quantity of Korean-language Christian pamphlets in Short’s hotel room, Wang said.
The Chinese travel agency that booked the trip, BTG, said it had discussed Short with its North Korean counterpart since his detention.
“When we called the North Korean travel agency, they said he had admitted that he didn’t go to North Korea only for tourism,” BTG employee Han Weiping told ABC.
She said Short might have fed suspicion that he was not a tourist when he decided to stay at his hotel rather than visit tourist sites on the third day of his tour.
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it has asked the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang to confirm Short’s well-being and to seek more information.
Australia has no diplomatic representation in North Korea and is represented in Pyongyang by the Swedish Embassy.
The North Korean government has not made any statements on the matter.