EXCLUSIVE: Australian tour operator and student, Alek Sigley, is now free but says he will never reveal what really occurred during his week-long forced disappearance in North Korea. But according to other Aussies who’ve recently visited the secretive and demonised nation, social media use could likely be one reason why the young Australian was detained at Kim Jong-un’s leisure this month.
He is believed to be the only Australian living in North Korea. And until about a week ago, Alek Sigley, was believed to be on pretty good terms with his hosts. One of the few foreigners allowed to operate a business in the secretive and misunderstood nation, the 29-year-old tour operator had also last year been allowed entry into a local university course in the capital of Pyongyang to study a master’s degree in Korean literature. His other privileges included being able to travel around Pyongyang without a local guide or watcher, and freely posting to social media about his exploits.
However, in the last week of June, Mr Sigley’s seemingly trouble-free relationship with Kim Jong-un’s government turned hostile. Unheard from since June 25, communication with the outside world went quiet as he was forcibly carted off to detention somewhere in North Korea for some still unknown reason. It is unclear where Mr Sigley was sent and what was done to him, if anything.
As news spread of his disappearance, some sections of the media were quick to suggest the young Australian could become the next Otto Warmbier. Imprisoned for a year-and-a-half before being released in a vegetative state in June 2017 and then dying a week later, Warmbier was an American student who had gone to North Korea in late 2015 as part of a tour trip he had taken prior to commencing studies in Hong Kong.
However, following a night of heavy drinking to celebrate the New Year, Warmbier was arrested on January 2, 2016 after he was alleged to have attempted to steal a poster extolling the virtues of Kim Jong-il from a staff-only area of his hotel in Pyongyang. Incidentally, the 22-year-old Warmbier had used a Chinese tour company to visit North Korea on his ultimately doomed holiday.
Along with his Japanese wife, Yuka Morinaga, Mr Sigley had been running his Tongil Tours travel company since 2013. The company conducts tours across Asia, with a focus on bringing tourists to North Korea. Mr Sigley and Ms Morinaga have been married for a year following a ceremony in Pyongyang.
While Prime Minister Scott Morrison was busy offering prayers, Australian government representatives were forced to grovel to Sweden for help with the release of Mr Sigley as Australia does not have an Embassy in North Korea.
Instead of godly powers it was quiet human diplomacy from Sweden’s special envoy to North Korea, Kent Rolf Magnus Harstedt, which played the most important role in securing Mr Sigley’s release on Thursday, July 4.
Australian tour operator and student, Alek Sigley, soon after being released by North Korea’s government (Image: AAP / SBS)
First flown to Beijing, Mr Sigley was then reunited with his wife in Tokyo, Japan.
Since being released, Mr Sigley has said he won’t be commenting publicly about what happened to him in North Korea over the past week or two.
“I just want everyone to know that I am OK,” he said in a written statement on Friday, July 5.
“I’m very happy to be back with my wife, Yuka, and to have spoken with my family in Perth (Australia) to reassure them I’m well.
“My family and friends are always a source of love and support but have been even more so at this time.”
The statement then ended with the sentence, “Mr Sigley said he would not be making any further comment at this time or later”.
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With Mr Sigley not that keen on revealing any details of his disappearance and detention, True Crime News Weekly has this week reached out to other Australians who have visited North Korea in recent years for a possible explanation about the strange turn of events.
British-Australian author and broadcaster, William Brougham, is one of only a handful of return visitors to North Korea.
He has already previously visited the Asian nation on two separate occasions, in 2015 and 2016.
Mr Brougham, who finds “the history and culture of the Korean peninsula fascinating”, told True Crime News Weekly he is hoping to once again visit the country in coming years.
“North Korea is an intriguing and surreal place and much of what we hear is based on truths, half truths, stereotypes and even lies,” he explained.
“It can at times be hard to fathom what is true or at least partly true.
“However, much of what we hear about North Korea is based on speculation.”
Multiple visitor: British-Australian author and broadcaster, William Brougham, in North Korea’s capital of Pyongyang (Images: Supplied)
When asked what possibly may have been behind Mr Sigley’s detention, Mr Brougham suggested a likely cuplrit could have been social media use.
“From what I understand there are a few reasons Sigley may have been detained. One is that he had liked Facebook posts mocking the regime. As one of the few foreigners living in the country it is likely that he would have been under some scrutiny by the authorities,” he said.
“Hopefully soon a reason will be given for his detention but it will be a very diplomatic one with no fierce rhetoric.”
Mr Brougham continued:
“Right now none of the parties involved are saying much in terms of reasons or motives. No doubt there was a lot of quiet diplomacy going on behind the scenes. I doubt either party will say much as all those involved are treading a careful line of diplomacy. They all have a vested interest including Mr Sigley with his studies and tourism business.“
Political commentator Jay Tharappel is another young Australian whose journey last year to North Korea and subsequent account created headlines and even caused a stir among federal politicians in Canberra.
The PhD student at the University of Sydney penned a travel-diary-like article under the title ‘Nine Days in North Korea‘ for the uni paper, Honi Soit, which quickly went viral when published last August.
“The [North Korean] state believes that it has a civilisational mission to complete, one that began with resistance to Japanese colonial occupation, and should end with the reunification of Korea, which both sides are enthusiastic about,” Mr Tharappel wrote about his visit, which included leisurely walks along jetties as well as tours of factories and schools.
“What I saw was a highly organised, egalitarian and energised society, with good reason to believe that they’re now reaping the fruits of past sacrifices.”
Not long after the piece was published, Mr Tharappel’s article attracted the ire of surly federal politicians, such as Labor MP Tim Watts, who called upon the one-time uni tutor to apologise for his supposed propaganda piece as well as for the university to take action against the editors who published it. Free speech much? Is this a democracy, or is it North Korea, one could ask.
Speaking this week about Mr Sigley’s disappearance to True Crime News Weekly, Mr Tharappel suggested the Australian Government was now engaging in a form of propaganda of its own. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has since used the incident to warn Mr Sigley and others to not travel to North Korea, saying the situation “could have ended up very differently”.
“We still don’t know why Sigley was detained and he’s not telling us so I won’t speculate, other than to point out the hypocrisy of our own political culture,” Mr Tharappel said.
“We should be more concerned about injustices carried out in our name. Take the case of Chan Han Choi, an Australian citizen of Korean heritage who is facing a lengthy jail term here, in this country, for essentially breaching the economic sanctions on Korea, which punishes ordinary North Koreans.”
Choi has been charged by the Australian Federal Police over allegations of brokering missile and coal deals for North Korea while also trying to help export iron from the country, against international sanctions.
In a leaked audio tape recorded in prison and published in January this year, Choi has said:
“I strongly believe that the United Nations economic sanctions imposed on North Korea are both unjust and unfair.”
Mr Tharappel explained that rather than demonising North Korea at every turn, it would be more helpful for Australians to compare North Korea’s release of Mr Sigley, seemingly unharmed, with the years-long pursuit of whistleblowers by the US Government and its allies amidst the threat of execution.
“Most obvious is the case of Australian citizen and Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, who faces the death penalty in the US, and yet our political establishment here has abandoned him completely,” Mr Tharappel said.
“We have no control over how the North Korean government behaves internally, whereas the actions of Western governments including our own should be our responsibility.”