In the Echo Chamber: Australian Missionary's Release From North Korea


By Tanya Silverman

The statues of the DPRK leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo by calflier001.

John Short, a 75-year-old Australian missionary, is no longer detained in North Korea. He was released and deported from the country this past Monday. Short, who resides in Hong Kong, was arrested for allegedly distributing Bible materials around a Buddhist temple and in a crowded train last month. Swedish authorities assisted Australia in the matter because the latter has no official diplomatic relations with North Korea.

Several hours after the missionary composed an apology letter and read it aloud on North Korean television, he was deported, arriving safely at the Beijing airport.

Through his hand-written, signed, thumb-printed letter, Short “confessed” that he visited the Popun Buddhist temple where he “committed a criminal act by secretly spreading” Bible tracts around its grounds. Short stated that he truly apologizes and understands the seriousness of his insult, especially considering it was on Feb 16, “the birthday of His Excellency Kim Jong Il,” a day North Koreans consider “the greatest national holiday.”

Reuters Television journalists who were present at the Beijing airport Monday said that Short did not speak to reporters after landing. Video footage shows Short walking through the terminal, being engulfed by a crowd of eager video journalists, shaking his head, dismissively waving his hand, and mouthing a few brief words.

“I’m really, really tired,” was perhaps what he was saying to the inquisitive reporters, a succinct statement that Reuters did not choose to include in their coverage. Nevertheless, countless other outlets quoted Short as expressing his tiredness, including The Guardian, Shenzhen DailyBBC, and AFP.

Tania Lee–who authored the AFP piece and captured several Getty stock photos of an emotional Short at the Beijing airport–wrote that observers believe North Koreans likely considered Short harmless. She subsequently quoted an expert from South Korea explaining that their northern neighbor had no strong interest in detaining the Australian missionary, given his nationality and age. North Korea itself claimed his age influenced their decision to deport him.

Whatever sympathy the country’s leadership harbors, Donald Kirk interpreted Short’s release as a North Korean “charm offensive” in his account on Christian Science Monitor. Perhaps freeing a foreign individual is a diplomatic stunt to peripherally improve relations with countries like the US and South Korea.

However, Kirk urged that Short’s release should not overshadow North Korea’s treatment of its own people. While one foreign individual was let go, domestically, the country remains incredibly repressive to its own people; Kirk cited the recent report that UN representatives used to compare the national leadership to Nazis.

Nevertheless, while still present in North Korean territory, Short said in his apology, “I realise that the mass media of the USA and the western countries who say that the DPRK is the closed country and has no religious freedoms is inaccurate and wrong.”  The denial of religious freedom was one of many human rights abuses described in the UN report.

Gary Lane, who authored a Christian Broadcasting Network article on Short, did not mention the diplomatic dynamics of the release or the efforts of the Swedish or Australian authorities; he interpreted the missionary’s quick release resulting from “prayer, prayer and more prayer.” Likewise, the missionary’s wife, Karen Short, also explained his short detention–compared to other, longer North Korean sentences, like 15 years of labor camp given to American missionary Kenneth Bae–being from “prayer, definitely prayer.”

Both Lane and the missionary’s wife agreed that Short’s apology for dispelling Gospel literature is inconsistent with his pious character.

Though Short’s honesty in the apology seems questionable, his words do resemble other public remarks that sentenced foreign missionaries publicly deliver while in North Korea. Just last week, Kim Jeong-wook, a South Korean missionary who was arrested in October, made a public “confession” that described his personal intent as insulting “the North’s leadership with extremely colourful language,” as well as encouraging North Koreans to smash statues of the Kim dynasty to clear room for churches. Similarly, Kenneth Bae apologized in January for anti-government acts and claimed that he is being treated fairly in prison.

“I have the decision to report to anyone my positive attitude of the reality of the DPRK,” Short wrote in his apology letter. The full text was published on the North Korean news agency’s website.

Speculating on the truth, and whether Short remains loyal to those very words, is not completely positive.