An Australian student who was finishing up his studies in North Korea has been reportedly detained by authorities in Pyongyang as he prepared to return home.
Alek Sigley, 29, who is studying for a Masters in Korean literature at Kim Il Sung University and operates a North Korean tour company called Tongil Tours, has not been seen or heard from for more than 48 hours.
According to reports in South Korean media on Wednesday, Sigley was arrested and taken into custody by authorities, but his family said Thursday that there has been no confirmation of this report.
“It has not been confirmed that Alek has been detained in the DPRK,” a statement said. “The situation is that Alek has not been in digital contact with friends and family since Tuesday morning Australian time, which is unusual for him.”
The Australian government said it was “working very hard to clarify” and officials in South Korea said they had contacted counterparts in the North to try and find out what has happened to Sigley.
Sigley, who has been visiting North Korea since 2012, has documented his travels and experiences extensively on Twitter and on his own blog. His last tweet was posted on Tuesday:
Coincidentally, Sigley was quoted in the state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun on Wednesday, but it is unclear when the interview took place.
“[Sigley] who visited our country said that DPRK is a very fascinating country and that there is no other country like DPRK in the world. He said, in fact, to visit and to see is the most important way to break the negative perception of the country,” the paper said.
When contacted by the Australian newspaper the Age, the North Korean embassy in Jakarta, which handles Australian visa applications, said: “You mean Alek? Nobody in the compound knows. This is propaganda.”
Sigley was in good spirits in recent days, according to his friend, the Australian National University North Korea expert, Leonid Petrov, who spoke to the Sydney Morning Herald.
Sigley was the first Australian and one of the very few Westerners to be allowed to study full-time in North Korea, a sign some took as a change in approach by the Kim Jong Un regime towards outsiders.
North Korea has been accused of detaining Westerners for the smallest transgressions, as leverage to gain concessions from sanctions imposed by foreign governments and the UN.
The last Australian to be detained in North Korea was Christian missionary John Short, who was detained for 13 days in 2014 for distributing Bible tracts with the aim of converting North Korean citizens. He was only released after he made a full confession and apologized for his actions.
The most recent high-profile case of a foreigner detained in North Korea was Otto Warmbier, the U.S. student who was jailed in 2016 for stealing a propaganda sign. The 22-year-old died shortly after he was returned to the U.S. states in a coma in 2017.
Cover: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a wreath laying ceremony in Vladivostok, Russia, Friday, April 26, 2019. Kim paid his respects at a ceremony honoring the war dead Friday to wrap up a brief and generally successful visit to the Russian Far East for his first summit with President Vladimir Putin. (AP Photo/Alexander Khitrov)