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The Australian Student Who Went Missing in North Korea Has Been Released

Alek Sigley, who had not been heard from in more than a week, has been confirmed "safe and sound" in China.

by Gavin Butler
04 July 2019, 5:24am

Image via YouTube/Sky News Australia

This article originally appeared on VICE Asia

Alek Sigley, the Australian student who went missing in North Korea last week, has been released and is safe in China. Sources familiar with the situation confirmed to NK News that Alek—who has not been heard from since last Tuesday and was feared detained by North Korean authorities—is “safe and sound”, and is expected to travel to Tokyo, where his wife Yuka Morinaga lives, later today.

His release comes just hours after reports speculated that Kent Rolf Magnus Harstedt, a special envoy of the Swedish government, would raise the issue of Alek’s disappearance during a scheduled visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The Australian government does not have an embassy in North Korea, and has been working with Sweden over the past week to try and ascertain the 29-year-old’s location.

Speaking in the Australian parliament this afternoon, Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed that Alek had been released from detention and had arrived safely in China, The Guardian reports.

“Swedish authorities advised they met with senior officials with the DPRK and raised the issue of Alex’s disappearance,” Morrison said. “We were advised that the DPRK have released him from detention and he has safely left the country and I can confirm that he has arrived safely.

“On behalf of the Australian government I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to the Swedish authorities for their invaluable assistance in securing Alek’s prompt release, which demonstrates the value of discreet behind-the-scenes work by officials in solving sensitive consular cases in close partnership with other governments,” Morrison added. “I’m sure we all could not be more pleased. We now know where he is [and] we know he is safe.”

Alek was living in the nation's capital of Pyongyang and studying at Kim Il Sung University at the time of his disappearance, as well as running a tour company that organises trips for foreign students. A spokesperson for Alek's family revealed last week that he had been out of contact since Tuesday, according to The Guardian, and until today there had been no further news of his whereabouts. An expert and friend of Alek’s speculated that he may have been silenced by authorities in the lead-up to US President Donald Trump’s recent visit to the Korean peninsula.

"I think that North Koreans potentially might have decided to shut down his blog, his Facebook account because the information was coming out of North Korea, which is unprecedented," Leonid Petrov, an academic and researcher from the Australian National University North Korea, suggested last week. "But in the context of what is going on in the Korean Peninsula today—President Trump on Sunday will go to the demilitarised zone and I believe tensions and security measures are heightened both in South and North Korea."

Leonid pointed out that “an international student studying at the university for more than a year and constantly bringing information about the reclusive country could have been seen as a potential distraction factor on the eve of a potential third summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.”

Leonid also said he didn’t think Alek was in immediate danger, however, pointing out that "international visitors and students are usually safe in North Korea because they are permitted to study there, they are trusted.”

"I don't think there is any danger to his wellbeing,” he said. “Perhaps he is being deliberately cut off from means of communication. It is a normal practice."

Alek’s tour company, Tongil Tours, specialised in educational tourism to North Korea. Last year VICE Australia published an article featuring an interview with Alek about his experience as a guide with the company.

"You see the image in the media when it comes to North Korea and it's snarling, glaring people in military uniforms and stuff like that,” he said at the time. “But when you go there... it's different.”

It has not been confirmed why Alek was detained.

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