Australia

Alek Sigley: The Australian student released by North Korea

Alek Sigley Image copyright SIGLEY FAMILY
Image caption Alek Sigley's disappearance had prompted fears for his welfare

There were serious fears for his safety after Alek Sigley went missing in North Korea. But the 29-year-old, who once described himself as the only Australian in North Korea, has now safely left the country after being freed from detention.

Mr Sigley had been pursuing a master's degree in North Korean literature at Kim ll-sung University and running a tourism company in Pyongyang.

But he was reported missing in late June after his family failed to hear from him for several days.

His accounts on Instagram and Twitter - where he was typically active - had also gone quiet.

The Australian government described his situation as a "very serious set of circumstances".

Then on 4 July, more than a week after he was first reported missing, Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that Mr Sigley was "released and safe".

His release came after the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang met with the North Korean government.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Mr Sigley arrived in Beijing on 4 July

Australia does not have a diplomatic presence in North Korea and conducts diplomacy through the Swedish embassy.

It is still unclear why Mr Sigley, a fluent Korean speaker, was detained.

A growing interest in North Korea

According to an old blog post written by Mr Sigley on his tourism company website, his interest in East Asia started when he was a child.

Born to an Australian sinologist father and a Chinese mother, he says he had "always been fascinated by socialism".

After finishing high school, he left his hometown of Perth and went on an exchange to Japan before going on to study at Shanghai's Fudan University in China.

It was during his time there that he was first introduced to North Korean students. He later began studying Korean and visited North Korea for the first time in 2012.

A year later, he established his own Australia-based tour agency, Tongil Tours, which specialises in "educational tourism" to North Korea. He led the tours while finishing his undergraduate degree in Asian Studies and philosophy at the Australian National University.

While at ANU, Mr Sigley says he "developed a strong interest in North Korean film and literature".

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Students at Kim Il-sung University, where a small number of foreigners study

He began looking into the possibility of attending Kim ll-sung University - one of the top universities in North Korea. He would spend almost the next two years trying to get in.

In April of 2018, he finally got accepted and began his master's degree in North Korean literature. He was one of a handful of Western students in the country.

In May last year he married his Japanese wife in Pyongyang. They met while he was a student in Shanghai and she had accompanied him on several trips to North Korea.

His wife, who has been named as Yuka Morinaga, told Australia's News Corp that he had tried to connect with locals in North Korea during his time there.

"He is always trying to demystify North Korea, unlike the typical Western media. He tries to understand the people there," she said.

'Steer clear of politically sensitive issues'

Mr Sigley ran a blog on his company's website where he detailed life as a student in North Korea.

Among some of his posts were restaurant reviews, his daily walk to class and attending a performance where North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was also present.

Mr Sigley had said in the blog that he generally "steered clear of politically sensitive issues".

"I'm not particularly interested in saying what has already been said a thousand times before about North Korea. I aim simply to present life in North Korea as I see and experience it."

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