Why South Australian missionary John Short is locked up in North Korea

NORTH Korean detainee John Short is no bumbling septuagenarian in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’s a man on a mission.

A hard line, frontline religious activist deeply involved in the battle to spread the word of his God to the world.

The story of how the 75-year-old grandfather came to be imprisoned by the most extreme political regime on the planet begins in South Australia’s riverland, in the months before the start of World War II.

He may have been based in Asia for over 50 years, but in many ways John Alexander Short is quintessentially Australian and proud of the fact he was born in Barmera, on Australia Day, January 26, 1939.

His parents were hoteliers and owned establishments at Sellicks Hill, in Adelaide’s south, and Broken Hill during his childhood.

They regarded themselves as Anglicans but were not overtly religious.

His grandmother was a little more ecclesiastical and encouraged John to attend Sunday school where he excelled.

A studious, capable child, he attended the newly built Adelaide Boys High School on West Terrace, that was officially opened in 1951.

He graduated as a dental technician from the Adelaide Dental Hospital on Frome Road in the city in 1960 and it was around the same time that he was “saved” by the efforts of then YMCA Adelaide secretary, Graeme Irvine.

Being “saved” — a term most commonly associated with Baptists — is the process of the personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.

This acceptance is often called new birth and those that believe understand no one can initiate that process except “God Himself”.

In January 1962 Mr Short joined the staff of the Adelaide YMCA and worked there for the next two years.

He associated himself with a group of religious believers known collectively as “Gospel Halls Brethren” and still has close ties with the Unley and Elizabeth branches.

Believers are commanded to undertake the “Great Commission” (evangelism) all over the world.

Gospel Halls are involved in spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ through preaching, printed literature, radio broadcasts and visitations to community institutions including schools, prisons and hospitals.

Speeches by Chinese evangelist and author Dr. Andrew Gih, and British born evangelical missionary in China, Gladys Aylward, were the catalyst that fired John Short’s calling.

He determined his life was to serve his Lord in China and set sail for the then British colony of Hong Kong in January 1964.

During the next decade hundreds of thousand of Chinese refugees poured into Hong Kong to escape the cultural revolution.

Mr Short, fluent in Cantonese, worked predominantly in the Kowloon Peace Clinic, with veteran missionary Frances Wilks, as a dentist assessing the condition of teeth of refugees and if necessary undertaking extractions.

He also worked at establishing two New Testament Churches in the protected territory that exercised religious freedom.

It was during a return visit to Australia in 1976 that he met his future wife, Karen, at a Sunday school picnic in country Queensland.

A trained nurse who later specialised in Ophthalmic nursing in Melbourne she had been converted at 17 by witness of a fellow worker at Bundaberg Hospital.

They married in January 1978 in Bundaberg and have lived in Hong Kong ever since, raising three boys who now live overseas.

The couple bought the Christian Book Room publishing house together 16 years ago, around the time the handover of Hong Kong from the UK to China in 1997.

The production and distribution of Bibles and Christian religious texts, translated in to several Asian languages, is the cornerstone of the Short family’s crusade to proliferate the “Word of God”.

They have a number of dedicated staff some whom have been with the Book Room for over 50 years.

Gospel Halls communities do not openly discuss how they fund their ministries but significant donations from Australia have been integral in the expansion of the religious business of John and Karen Short.

Their Asian ministry has a wide network and has a foothold in several of China’s inland provinces along with bases in Myanmar, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Indonesia.

Mr Short has been at the forefront of the expansion and has made many trips to help establish the bases.

He has been operating in some of the most politically and religiously sensitive places on the planet and is highly aware of the consequences of rocking the boat.

It would be reasonable to suggest Mr Short regards arrest and detainment as an occupational hazard.

He has been arrested by the Chinese several times and had his visa revoked in 1996.

He was not permitted to re-enter mainland China for two years and at that time Karen and other staff workers took over his visits.

Religious tolerance in China has improved since the lifting of the “Bamboo Curtain” but it is not in John Short’s nature or mission statement to take an easy path.

North Korea, was one of the three countries in George W Bush’s 2002 reference to the Axis of Evil.

It is notorious for the persecution of its own people with some of the harshest punishments, including summary death, handed out to those who profess to be Christians.

John Short knew this — it was the reason he entered the totalitarian state of North Korea last Saturday.

Karen Short says North Korea has been “in her husband’s heart” for the last few years.

“He wanted to go there as a person that cares for them living in a closed country,’’ she said this week just after the news broke on Advertiser.com.au of his detention.

``There are Christians there but they aren’t welcome, appreciated and not free.

“God called him to help those in need.’’

Mr Short carried in his luggage several self-written pamphlets, translated in the Korean language, declaring “Does it matter what I believe?’’

John Short thinks it does and that’s why he is captive in North Korea — facing up to 15 years of hard labour — with no word yet on his situation or future.