This undated photo provided by John Short's family, shows Australian missionary John Short and his wife Karen, in Hong Kong.
BEIJING: A 75-year-old Australian man has been detained in North Korea for distributing religious materials, leaving diplomats scrambling to prevent a potentially lengthy detention in the secretive regime.
John Short, a veteran Christian missionary who has been working in Asia for 50 years, was caught with religious pamphlets which had been translated into Korean.
He has not been allowed to leave since police started questioning him on Sunday, his wife Karen said.
"There’s no point [being] hysterical"' ... Karen Short, wife of Australian missionary John Short, poses with a photo of her husband inside the Christian Book Room in Hong Kong.
The Australian government is powerless to help him directly as it has no diplomatic presence in Pyongyang. Instead, it is using its embassy and Seoul and relying on Swedish officials in the North Korean capital to check on the South Australian’s wellbeing.
“John is still in North Korea in detention and being questioned as to why he was carrying Korean-language Christian materials,” Mrs Short said via telephone in Hong Kong, where she co-owns a Christian publishing firm with her husband.
“He wanted to go as a Christian but not do anything untoward or unwise, because it’s a very closed country, the world knows that. He’s not cavalier in any way, but he is a man of faith.”
Prohibited in North Korea ... Korean-language Christian pamphlets that Australian missionary John Short was carrying to North Korea, are shown inside the Christian Book Room in Hong Kong.
It is unclear what charges, if any, Mr Short may face. But in a case with some parallels, North Korea last year sentenced American missionary Kenneth Bae to 15 years hard labour after convicting him of trying to overthrow the state. Efforts from Washington to secure his release have proven unsuccessful.
The North’s suspicions against Christianity are partly fuelled by the known activities of some China-based South Korean missionaries who are part of a underground church network who help shelter defectors from authorities, eventually helping them to make their way to a third country before seeking refuge in South Korea.
On Tuesday, a United Nations panel chaired by former Australian High Court judge Michael Kirby issued a damning report on North Korea’s wide-ranging human rights abuses under leader Kim Jong-un, including a lack of religious freedom.
Mrs Short said she was initially shocked to receive the news of her husband’s detention, but was now focused on helping him return home.
“I’m quite calm," she said. "We’re Christian and I have many Christian friends that are praying and supporting John and myself, so there’s no point to worry, there’s no point [being] hysterical and emotional."
Mrs Short had not spoken to her husband since last Wednesday when he was in Beijing en route to Pyongyang, and only found out he was being detained when her husband's travelling companion informed her on Tuesday morning.
Mrs Short said it was her husband’s second trip into North Korea. He had also brought religious pamphlets into the country on his first trip, and had even openly read his bible in front of his tour guide, but had not run into trouble with authorities, she said.
Having converted to Christianity aged 21, Mr Short was inspired by a Chinese evangelist and set sail for Hong Kong in 1964, where he has been based since.
He worked with Chinese who fled the mainland for Hong Kong during the Cultural Revolution, and made frequent missionary trips to the mainland after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976.
Mrs Short said her husband was arrested twice previously in China, the last time in 1996 when he had his entry visa cancelled, but had since been allowed back.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it was in close contact with Swedish diplomats in Pyongyang. "Australia has no diplomatic representation in North Korea and our capacity to deliver consular services there is extremely limited,’’ the spokeswoman said.
‘‘Australian interests in North Korea are currently represented by the Swedish Embassy. We are in close contact with Swedish officials in Pyongyang to seek their assistance in confirming the well-being of Mr Short and to obtain more information.”