Australian student detained in N Korea ‘released, safe’

SYDNEY (AFP) – A 29-year-old Australian student detained in North Korea surfaced in Beijing airport yesterday, saying he was in “very good” spirits after being released.

Alek Sigley – one of a handful of Westerners living and studying in North Korea – disappeared without a trace around June 23, prompting a week of deep concern and frantic speculation about his fate.

For days Sigley’s family received no word about his whereabouts or well-being, stoking fears he may have been the latest in a long line of foreigners to become entangled in North Korea’s police state.

Then, with little warning, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison yesterday told lawmakers that Sigley had “been released from detention in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” and that “he is safe and well”.

Sigley’s father Gary, a professor of Chinese and Asian studies, told media in Australia that the family was “extremely pleased he is safe and sound”.

Australian student Alek Sigley smiles as he arrives at the airport in Beijing. – AP

The father admitted he had missed a call from his son because he had been busy “shopping” but hoped to give him a “big hug and kiss” soon.

Alek Sigley’s detention came just days before a G20 summit and a landmark meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Trump was intimately involved in the case of University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier, who was imprisoned during a tour of the authoritarian state in 2016.

Doctors said Warmbier suffered severe brain damage while in detention, fell into a coma and died days after arriving back in the United States, aged 22.

Sigley was much more familiar with the country and spoke fluent Korean.

He ran tours to North Korea and a number of social media sites, which usually had a stream of apolitical content about everyday life in one of the world’s most secretive nations.

His blog posts focussed on everyday life in Pyongyang – everything from the city’s dining scene to North Korean app reviews.

“He is always trying to demystify North Korea, unlike the typical Western media. He tries to understand the people there,” his 26-year-old Japanese wife Yuka Morinaga had said.

The pair married in a lavish ceremony in Pyongyang last year.

The case was complicated by Australia’s lack of diplomatic representation in North Korea.

Morrison thanked Sweden for its diplomatic help in securing Sigley’s release.

Earlier this week Swedish special envoy Kent Harstedt had travelled to Pyongyang, where he raised the issue with North Korean authorities.

“I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to Swedish authorities for their invaluable assistance in securing Alek’s prompt release,” Morrison said, hailing it as a triumph of “behind the scenes” diplomacy.

Sigley is now at the Australian embassy in Beijing and is expected to travel to Japan, where his wife still lives.

“He’s safe on Aussie soil at our embassy in Beijing,” Morrison said.