The Australian government yesterday said it was “urgently seeking clarification” on reports that an Australian had been detained in North Korea, which the attorney-general described as a “matter of the utmost seriousness.”
The family of Alek Sigley said they had no confirmation that the 29-year-old Pyongyang university student had been detained, but he had not been in digital contact with family and friends since Tuesday, which was unusual for him.
Australian Attorney-General Christian Porter, who is based in Sigley’s hometown of Perth, told Perth Radio 6PR: “It is a very unusual set of circumstances.”
“This particular jurisdiction, most Australians’ common sense would tell them, makes this a matter of the utmost seriousness,” Porter said.
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it was providing consular assistance to the family of an Australian man who has been reported as being detained in North Korea, but did not confirm his identity.
“The department is urgently seeking clarification. Owing to our privacy obligations, we will not provide further comment,” a department statement said.
Sigley said on social media that he was studying Korean literature at Kim Il Sung University and ran guided tours through a travel company he founded in 2013, Tongil Tours.
He told Australian Broadcasting Corp two years ago that he wanted to break down negative stereotypes about the country.
“If we thought it was unsafe, we would stop doing these tours,” Sigley said. “We wouldn’t be able to bear the moral and legal responsibility of bringing people to North Korea if it was dangerous.”
Official media in North Korea have not mentioned the reported arrest.
South Korean television station Channel A cited an unidentified source in reporting the arrest, but the source told the network it was not immediately clear why Sigley had been detained.
The South Korean National Intelligence Service said it could not confirm the report.
In March, Sigley wrote for the Guardian Australia about living in North Korea, saying that as a long-term foreign resident on a student visa he had “nearly unprecedented access to Pyongyang.”
“I’m free to wander around the city, without anyone accompanying me,” he wrote. “Interaction with locals can be limited at times, but I can shop and dine almost anywhere I want.”
Sigley last posted a blog on Tongil Tours’ Web site on Thursday last week, reviewing restaurants aimed at Pyongyang’s middle-to-upper class. He last sent a tweet on Monday.
Tongil Tours says it was “the first tour operator to offer concentrated language study at a North Korean university in 2016,” with the next such tour due to begin today with an overnight train ride from Beijing to Pyongyang.
“It’s likely that a small action could have been considered a ‘mistake’ and he has been arrested as a measure of punishment,” Choi Soon-mi, a professor on North Korean Studies at Ajou University’s Institute for Unification near Seoul, said in a telephone interview with Bloomberg.
“He is an Australian national, and not a US citizen — so unlike Warmbier, it’s unlikely that Sigley will be used by the North Korean regime” as a diplomatic tool, she said.
Australia does not have an embassy in North Korea, but consular assistance can be provided by the Swedish embassy on a limited basis.
Additional reporting by Bloomberg
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