Updated: 02/19/2014 16:53 | By Agence France-Presse

Australian missionary held in North Korea

A 75-year-old Australian missionary has been detained in North Korea for allegedly distributing Korean-language Christian pamphlets, his wife told AFP on Wednesday.

Australian missionary held in North Korea

The Juche Tower in Pyongyang on April 15, 2012. A 75-year-old Australian missionary has been detained in North Korea for allegedly distributing religious material, a report says - by Ed Jones

Hong Kong-based John Short was taken from his Pyongyang hotel on Monday by North Korea's public security bureau following an earlier visit from the officers on Sunday night. 

"He arrived Saturday morning from Beijing" as part of an organised tour group, Karen Short told AFP in Hong Kong. 

"On Monday they (the officers) came early, around 7:00 am," she said, adding that the North Koreans told her husband and a Chinese companion they would be taken to the airport and deported. 

"John never arrived (at the airport)."

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs said it was working on the case via the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, which represents Australian interests in the absence of diplomatic relations between Canberra and North Korea.

"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," a spokesman said. 

Short said she was unsure how much leverage Australia's government would have to influence her husband's fate.

"I don’t know they can do very much," she said

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

Pyongyang views foreign missionaries as seditious elements intent on fomenting unrest and those who are caught engaging in any activities in the North are subject to immediate arrest.

- 'He wants to help' -

The North's suspicions are fuelled by the known activities of some China-based South Korean missionaries who are part of a network that helps those fleeing North Korea to make their way via a third country to South Korea.

North Korea is also holding US citizen Kenneth Bae, described by a North Korean court as a militant Christian evangelist.

He was arrested in November 2012 and later sentenced to 15 years' hard labour on charges of seeking to topple the government.

The Shorts have lived in Asia for about 40 years. John Short bought the Hong Kong-based Christian Book Room publishing house with his wife some 15 years ago, she said.

The publisher distributes calendars, Bibles and tracts, in Chinese and other languages. 

Karen Short said her husband was motivated by the plight of the Korean people.

"He knew North Korea was not a tourist destination but he cares about the people and he wants to help," she said.

It was her husband's second visit to the country, Short said, after a first one around the same time last year as part of an organised tour.

Short's detention comes just days after a hard-hitting United Nations report, headed by an Australian former judge, outlined a litany of crimes against humanity in North Korea, including mass murder, enslavement and starvation.

It recommended that North Korea's leaders should be brought before the International Criminal Court.

North Korea refused to cooperate with the commission, claiming its evidence was "fabricated" by "hostile" forces.

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