Briefing

Experts say North Korea's detention of Australian student Alek Sigley had to do with tensions between Kim Jong Un and Trump

Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty ImagesAlek Sigley walks through the terminal building as he arrives at Haneda Airport on July 4, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan.

North Korea says Alek Sigley, who was detained for over a week before being released on Thursday, had been engaged in “spying acts” during his time as a student at Kim Il Sung University in North Korea’s capital of Pyongyang.

The 29-year-old had been working on his Master’s degree in Korean Literature at North Korea’s top university, the alma mater of many of North Korea’s elite including leader Kim Jong Un, before he was reported missing on June 25. His family said in a statement that he had “not been in digital contact with friends and family since Tuesday morning Australian time” which they flagged as unusual behaviour.

Sigley was released from detention in North Korea on Thursday morning, 10 days after his initial disappearance, and was reunited with his wife, Yuka in Tokyo. In a statement on Thursday, Sigley said he was “OK” but added that he would not be discussing what happened to him.

North Korean state media on Saturday accusedSigley of committing “spying acts” against the state by providing photos and videos to media critical of the state.

“Investigation revealed that at the instigation of the NK News and other anti-DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) media he handed over several times the data and photos he collected and analysed while combing Pyongyang by making use of the identity card of a foreign student,” state news Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported Saturday.

“He honestly admitted his spying acts of systematically collecting and offering data about the domestic situation of the DPRK and repeatedly asked for pardon, apologizing for encroachment upon the sovereignty of the DPRK.”

Sigley, who benefited from special treatment as a foreign student in North Korea, has written op-eds in several outlets, including in the Guardian, the Independent Australian, and NK News, about his experiences.


Read more:
Here’s everything we know about Alek Sigley, an Australian university student and tour guide reportedly detained in North Korea

NK News, an independent media site that provides news and analyses on North Korea, defended Sigley’s columns on its site, rejecting the accusation that his work was biased against North Korea.

“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,” CEO of NK News Chad O’Carroll said in a statement on Saturday.

“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.”

Experts say tensions between Trump and Kim Jong Un may have played a role in Sigley’s detention

Experts question North Korea’s explanation into Sigley’s detention and say tensions between the Trump administration and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may have spurred Sigley’s sudden disappearance.

Joseph A Camilleri, an international relations scholar from La Trobe University, told the Sydney Morning Herald on Sunday that North Korea likely knew about Alek’s activities on social media and in Pyongyang from the moment he stepped foot in the country and used Sigley as a pawn in a diplomatic game currently being played with the US.

“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,” Camilleri told the Herald. “They knew exactly what he was doing.”

Camilleri said it was likely that Sigley’s detention was designed by North Korea to send a message to the Trump administration that it hoped significant progress in the next round of denuclearization talks with the US.

Talks between the Trump administration and North Korea have strained in recent months after a February summit between the countries’ leaders ended abruptly without a deal.

US President Donald Trump visited North Korea’s borderon June 30 and shook hands with Kim. He also offered to invite the North Korean leader to the White House for a future meeting.

Reports indicate that Trump might be softening his stance on North Korea. According to the New York Times, the Trump administration is considering a deal that merely asks the country to freeze its nuclear program rather than dismantle it completely in exchange for sanctions relief.

Sigley previously denied he supported the politics of North Korea

Sigley has been living in North Korea for several years and founded an educational tour company called Tongil Tours in 2013. Before beginning his studies at Kim Il Sung University in 2018, Sigley studied at universities across Japan, China, Australia, and South Korea. According to his tour’s website, Sigley speaks English, Mandarin, Korean, and Japanese.

Despite social media being largely banned in North Korea, Sigley was still able to access Twitter and Facebook, where he frequently uploaded photos and videos of his experiences.

Sigley told American public radio organisation PRI in February that North Korean authorities had not complained or attempted to censor his posts, allowing him much more digital freedom than an average North Korean. He also said he was allowed to roam around the capital without the need for an organised tour or a government-imposed guardian as most other foreign visitors are required.

Still, Sigley dismissed criticism that his social media posts promoted North Korea and ignored the atrocities committed in the notoriously reclusive state.

“Simply going to a place and being there doesn’t mean I support everything about the politics there,” he told PRI.

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