Australian missionary John Short was scheduled to return to China this Friday from a group tour to North Korea. But a day after landing in the country last weekend, the 75-year-old was questioned and detained, his wife, Karen Short, says. She got the news Wednesday when his traveling companion journeyed back solo. “I pray for my husband to come back soon,” she told TIME.
North Korea has yet to comment on Short’s case, but his family believes he was probably apprehended for carrying Korean-language Christian pamphlets into the secretive state. On a previous trip to North Korea, Short read Christian literature in front of his guides, Karen told the press. She said he has also been arrested in China three times for evangelizing. “He knew that the documents he was carrying are illegal and that the information he wanted to spread is not welcome,” she said. “He is always going to places where religion is not welcome to spread the word.”
Until there is official word from Pyongyang, there is no way to know if the pamphlet theory is correct. But it is increasingly clear that North Korea has three red lines: unauthorized reporting, spying and proselytizing. U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were arrested in 2009 while reporting at the China-North Korea border. Merrill Newman, the 85-year-old American who was detained last fall, was a former special forces soldier affiliated with a Korean War-era clandestine unit. Current American prisoner Kenneth Bae is, like Short, a missionary. He was arrested on a group tour in 2012 and sentenced to 15 years hard labor.
North Korea has complex and highly fraught relationship with Christianity. Missionaries came to the Korean peninsula before the turn of the last century and quickly gained ground. During Japanese colonial rule, the faith flourished in what is now North Korea, particularly among intellectuals. The country’s founding father, Kim Il Sung, was born in 1912 into a Protestant family. By the 1940s, Pyongyang was the “most Protestant of all major cities of Korea,” writes North Korea expert Andrei Lankov. Its nickname: “The Jerusalem of the East.”
After the the Korean War divided the peninsula, an ascendant Kim Il Sung became more fearful of the faith. Protestantism was branded an instrument of American imperialism. Churches were shuttered, and the Bible banned. Instead, writes Barbara Demick in Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Christian symbols were appropriated to promote Kim himself: “What distinguished [Kim] in the rogues’ gallery of twentieth-century dictators was his ability to harness the power of faith,” she writes.
Kim and his descendants have built a cult of personality that leaves little room for other creeds. North Korea is officially atheist, but organized religion is repressed and the Kims are worshiped like Gods. School children are taught that the Kim men — the trinity of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un — have nearly supernatural powers. Kim Il Sung’s date of birth is the most important day in the calendar, so much so that in 1997 the country abandoned the Christian calendar for one that begins on April 15, 1912. Portraits of the Kims hold a place of reverence.
The cult of Kim helps keep them in power, and fear plays a crucial role. The regime has spent years insisting that the country is under attack — from the U.S., its South Korean allies, and Christianity. If the government goes public with Short’s arrest, it will likely be to bolster that narrative. Merrill Newman was forced to publicly confess his alleged crimes against the country. John Short may be forced to do the same.
Getting Short out will require difficult diplomatic maneuvering. Australia, like the U.S., does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea. Australia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs said the country’s interests will be represented by the Swedish embassy, and that they are working with Swedish officials on the case. The release this week of a scathing U.N. report that accuses North Korea of “crimes against humanity” may heighten the atmosphere of anger and distrust.
It is too soon to know what fate awaits the Australian. Karen Short says he was carrying flyers he wrote titled “Does it matter what I believe?” at the time of his arrest. The material is religious, she says, not political. Reached at the Christian Book Store that she and her husband run in Hong Kong, Karen said she worried North Korean authorities would “dig out anything they want and build a case.” North Korea, she said, “is not known for telling the truth.”
Despite that, she is staying calm for now. As she told reporters, “he’s in God’s hands.”
—With reporting by Michelle Arrouas /Hong Kong