Hong Kong (AFP) - 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.
Hong Kong-based John Short was taken from his Pyongyang hotel on Monday by North Korean police, two days after arriving from Beijing as part of an organised tour group, Karen Short said.
"On Monday they (the officers) came early, around 7:00 am," she told AFP in Hong Kong.
The North Koreans told her husband and a Chinese companion they would be taken to the airport and deported, she said.
"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, while adding: "He is not intimidated by communists in any way and he doesn't trust them and he wouldn't want anything from them.
"My hope and prayer is that God is in control, and he will be released soon."
The Shorts married in 1978 and John has lived in Asia for five decades. The couple bought the Hong Kong-based Christian Book Room publishing house together some 15 years ago, his wife said.
The publisher distributes calendars, Bibles and tracts, in Chinese and other languages.
- 'Fearless' -
Although religious freedom is enshrined in the North Korean constitution, it does not exist in practice 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.
The North's suspicions are fuelled by the known activities of some China-based South Korean missionaries who are part of a network helping North Koreans flee to South Korea via a third country.
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. His family worry that given his frail health, Bae cannot cope with the prison labour, and the US government has demanded his release.
The "fit and healthy" Short was described by his wife as "fearless".
"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, she 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.