This article originally appeared on VICE Asia
North Korea has accused Australian student Alek Sigley of spying, with state media citing this as the reason for his detention and subsequent expulsion from the country in recent weeks.
Alek, 29, was confirmed “safe and sound” in China on Thursday after being released by authorities from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). He had been missing for nine days—and while there was previously no explanation regarding the circumstances of his detention, KCNA newsagency now claims he was caught “red-handed” collecting data and photographs and passing them on to "anti-DPRK" media outlets, the ABC reports.
The newsagency further claimed that Alek had admitted to his "spying acts" and was expelled from North Korea out of "humanitarian leniency."
"He honestly admitted his spying acts of systematically collecting and offering data about the domestic situation of the DPRK and repeatedly asked for pardon, apologising for encroachment upon the sovereignty of the DPRK," the agency said.
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, Tongil Tours, that organised trips for foreign students. He also wrote opinion articles and essays that appeared in a number of Western media outlets. Last year VICE Australia published an article featuring an interview with Alek about his experience as a tour guide.
"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.”
NK News, an American publication specialising in North Korean news and analysis that has previously published some of Alek’s work, has denounced the claim that his articles were anti-DPRK.
"The six articles Alek published represent the full extent of his work with us and the idea that those columns, published transparently under his name between January and April 2019, are 'anti-state' in nature is a misrepresentation which we reject," said Chad O'Carroll, CEO of NK News publisher the Korea Risk Group. "Alek Sigley's well-read columns presented an apolitical and insightful view of life in Pyongyang which we published in a bid to show vignettes of ordinary daily life in the capital to our readers."
Australian observers have also challenged the claim that Alek was detained for being a spy—suggesting that it was more likely related to American President Donald Trump’s visit to the Korean peninsula on June 30. Professor Joseph A Camilleri, an international relations specialist from Melbourne’s La Trobe University, told Fairfax it was impossible that the North Korean regime hadn’t been fully aware of Alek’s activities from the very beginning.
"He would have had to jump through so many hoops to be allowed to study and even more to be allowed to run a business,” Joseph said. “They knew exactly what he was doing."
Leonid Petrov, an academic from the Australian National University North Korea and a friend of Alek’s, previously speculated that he may have been silenced by authorities in the lead-up to Trump’s arrival.
"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 said, as reported by The Guardian. "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.”
Alek’s release came shortly after the intervention of a Swedish envoy on behalf of the Australian government. Speaking in the Australian parliament on Thursday afternoon, Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed that Alek had been released from detention and had arrived safely in China.
“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’s father, Gary Sigley, said his son was treated well in North Korea.
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