Asia Life

North Korea Releases Australian Missionary as Bae Languishes in Prison

Recent Features

Asia Life

North Korea Releases Australian Missionary as Bae Languishes in Prison

John Short was deported after confessing to the distribution of Christian materials.

An Australian missionary, arrested last month in Pyongyang, was released and deported earlier today.

John Alexander Short, 75, was detained on February 19 after distributing religious pamphlets promoting Christianity at a Buddhist temple in the Hermit Kingdom’s capital. It was Short’s second trip there and, according to his confession, his second attempt to proselytize North Korean citizens.

Faith-based undertakings are restricted by the North Korean government and missionaries have been detained in the past. Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American who was arrested in November 2012, is one of them. After being sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, hopes of an early release were dashed when North Korea cancelled the invitation of a U.S. envoy intent on brokering a deal.

Bae, 45, ran a China-based tour company that specialized in travel to the secretive communist state. The devout Christian was accused of orchestrating a coup via religious activities – though it is unclear exactly how he allegedly planned to convert North Koreans.

On the other hand, Short was in possession of Christian literature that had been translated into Korean. The Chinese travel agency that arranged his trip confirmed that religious pamphlets were being carried in his luggage.

“In early 2012 I requested Mr. Paul Baek to translate my Bible tract into the Korean language,” Short wrote in his confession letter. “I designed my Bible tracts to be small size for spreading easier into [North Korea]. I was interested to see if I could possibly carry more on another occasion.”

“In February 2014, I came as a tourist to DPRK to spread my Bible tracts in a larger quantity.” Short continued. “On February 16, I visited the Popun temple and committed a criminal act by secretly spreading my Bible tracts around the temple. I deeply apologize for what I have done by spreading my Bible tracts on February 16, the birthday of His Excellency Kim Jong Il.”

Christian Wang Chong, a Chinese Christian who was the second member of Short’s two-person group, verified that Short’s detention stemmed from his visit to the temple. His wife was also aware that Short was in possession of religious materials prior to the trip.

Bae, who similarly confessed in January, remains behind bars indefinitely. Many hoped that Bae, who was paraded in front of reporters in a public spectacle, would become a bargaining chip for Pyongyang to restart diplomatic exchanges with the U.S.

According to North Korea’s state-run KCNA news agency, the decision to deport Short is due in part to his age.

While Bae’s offenses may not be any more severe than Short’s, hailing from the U.S. – the sworn enemy of North Korea – may add an extra layer of difficulty to potential negotiations. His Asian ethnicity (both Short and recently-released Korean War veteran Merill Newman are Caucasian) may also play a part.

“The inadequate outcry on Kenneth’s behalf may be another example of how Asian-Americans get pushed aside and remain marginalized—outside of dominant American society. Because Asian-Americans are labeled as ‘honorific whites,’ issues related to their civil rights are often ignored or glazed over as a non-civil rights issue. If Asian-Americans are understood as whites, violations of their civil rights are no longer viewed as bias-motived and do not receive the ‘hate crime’ qualifier and the attention that could bring. Perhaps this ‘honorific white’ category is at play in the case of Kenneth Bae,” wrote American civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, who has offered to travel to North Korea on Bae’s behalf, in a letter to The Nation.

Short arrived in Beijing just hours after the KCNA announcement that detailed his confession and release.