HONG KONG (AP) — Australia’s prime minister on Thursday urged citizens abroad to obey the laws of foreign countries after an Australian missionary who carried Christian pamphlets was detained in North Korea.
John Short, 75, was questioned and then arrested in his Pyongyang hotel on Sunday, a day after he arrived in the North Korean capital, his family said. He has lived in Hong Kong for 50 years and has been arrested previously in China for evangelizing.
“He was carrying Korean literature on his person and that could be the reason, but again I don’t know,” his wife, Karen, told The Associated Press.
While North Korea’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, in practice only sanctioned services are tolerated by the government.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said his government would do its best to offer Short consular assistance.
“If you are in another country, be careful to obey their laws. If you’re in trouble, the Australian government is there to do its best to help,” Abbott told reporters in Sydney.
Last year, American missionary Kenneth Bae was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor after being accused of committing hostile acts in North Korea.
Short, from Barmera, South Australia state, 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.”
“It’s not an open country and it doesn’t welcome Christians – yes, we realize that,” his wife 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.”
Staff at the reception desk at Pyongyang’s Yanggakdo Hotel, one of the city’s main hotels for foreigners, said Short had stayed there until Tuesday.
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 on the second day of their tour during a visit to a Buddhist temple.
Wang, also 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 on Thursday.
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.
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it has asked the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang to confirm Short’s wellbeing 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.
McGuirk contributed from Canberra, Australia. AP journalists Kelvin M. Chan in Hong Kong and Eric Talmadge in Pyongyang contributed to this report.