Australia investigates claims its national detained in N Korea

Government seeking urgent clarification on whereabouts of student Alek Sigley who was reported missing by friends.

North Korea Alek Sigley
Sigley, from the west coast city of Perth, is one of only a handful of Western students at the university in the North Korean capital [Screenshot: Alek Sigley/Twitter]

The family of an Australian student reportedly detained in North Korea said on Thursday they had not heard from him for several days, as the Australian government said it was seeking urgent clarification on his whereabouts.

In an emailed statement, Alek Sigley’s family said they had not heard from the 29-year-old since Tuesday.

“He has not been in digital contact with friends or family since Tuesday morning Australian time, which is unusual for him,” Reuters reported family spokeswoman, Lesley Parker, as saying.

Parker confirmed Sigley was missing but said his family had received no indication he had been detained in North KoreaReuters reported a source familiar with the situation saying the student had been reported missing by friends. Sigley is a postgraduate literature student at Kim Il Sung University in the capital, Pyongyang.

The Australian government said on Thursday it was “urgently seeking clarification” on reports that Sigley had been detained.

“The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is providing consular assistance … to the family of an Australian man who has been reported as being detained in North Korea,” the department said in a statement.

“The department is urgently seeking clarification. Owing to our privacy obligations, we will not provide further comment,” it added.

Sigley, who comes from the west coast city of Perth, is one of only a handful of western students at the university.

As well as studying Korean literature, he also has a travel company that offers “educational” guided tours of the authoritarian state. He last posted on social media two days ago, sharing a picture of the mammoth Ryugyong Hotel.

Official media in North Korea have not mentioned the student. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, the country’s main spy agency, said it could not confirm the report.

Pizza, football and friends

Australia has no diplomatic mission of its own in Pyongyang and is represented there by the Swedish embassy.

The government in Canberra advises against non-essential travel to North Korea – where several foreigners have been detained in the past.

In 2016, Otto Warmbier, an American student was sentenced to 15 years hard labour for trying to steal a propaganda poster from the wall of his hotel while on a tour of the country.

Doctors said the 22-year-old suffered severe brain damage while in detention. He was returned to the United States in a coma and died a few days after arriving home in June 2017.

In a post in January this year, Sigley described a strong interest in East Asia and “socialism” and recounted his first visit to North Korea in 2012.

The son of an Anglo-Australian man and Chinese mother, he previously studied at Fudan University in Shanghai and in South Korea before moving to Pyongyang, according to his post.    

“I’m enrolled in a master’s degree in Korean literature in the university’s postgraduate school,” he wrote. “Because I am the only foreign student in this particular program, my courses are all conducted one-on-one with the teacher.”

Steering clear of politics, Sigley’s Twitter feed includes regular pictures of his everyday life from eating pizza to visiting the zoo and hanging out with friends.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies