Alek Sigley, a 29-year-old Australian Master’s student at Kim Il Sung University in North Korea’s capital of Pyongyang, was released from detention in North Korea on July 4.
Family and friends reported him missing on June 25 after he had not been in digital communication with them since Tuesday morning Australia time.
10 days after his initial disappearance, he 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.
It’s unclear what happened to Sigley during his time in detention. North Korean state media on Saturday said they detainedSigley for committing “spying acts” against the state by providing photos and videos to media that was critical of the state.
Sigley, who grew up in Perth, Australia was a long-term foreign resident on a student visa, according to an op-ed he penned for the Guardian last year, in which he claimed to be the “only Australian in North Korea.”
His experience brings to mind the case of Otto Warmbier, a US college student who was detained in North Korea in 2016 and later died under mysterious circumstances.
Here’s everything we know about Alek Sigley:
Sigley has studied at several universities around the world and speaks several languages.
According to his Facebook page, Sigley studied Asian Studies at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, a top international university on the island of Kyushu in southern Japan, from 2008-2009.
He then moved to China to study Chinese at Beijing Language and Culture University until 2010. Upon completion of his studies, he began a 3-year program at Fudan University in Shanghai where he studied philosophy.
It appears Sigley also studied Korean studied at Sogang University, a liberal arts university in Seoul, South Korea, from 2015 to 2017, and studied philosophy at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia’s capital, until 2018.
Sigley’s Facebook says he took short-term Korean lessons at Kim Hyong Jik University in Pyongyang in 2016 and is currently studying at Kim Il-sung University in North Korea’s capital, the alma mater of many of North Korea’s elite including leader Kim Jong Un.
According to an interview Sigley did with American public radio organisation PRI, his thesis at North Korea’s top university will be on romance in North Korean literature. Sigley said it was difficult to get into the university but that his established “connections” inside country deemed him “trustworthy.”
“There’s not really an open application process. The university has a website but, if you go there, you won’t find any information whatsoever on how to apply,” he said in the interview.
“But if you’ve already started a business and made connections, then it becomes possible. They have to decide you’re trustworthy.”
He also ran a tour company.
Sigley founded and ran an educational tour company called Tongil Tours, according to his Twitter page, which held tours in North Korea and Northeast Asia.
According to the tour’s website, the company “empowers university students, life-long learners, and inquisitive people everywhere to examine the world in which they live through meaningful learning tours to North Korea, Asia, and beyond.” It also provides travel information to foreigners looking to come to North Korea.
He got married in Pyongyang to a Japanese woman named Yuka.
Sigley married wife Yuka on May 4, 2018, in Pyongyang, according to a post on his tour’s website.
He also penned an opinion piece in the Independent Australian titled “Dear President Trump, please don’t bomb my wedding in North Korea” in which he provided more details on the nuptials and addressed US President Donald Trump and asked him “to hold off the nuclear bombing of North Korea for his wedding, then consider making peace with Kim Jong Un.”
Sigley met his wife, who hails from Hiroshima, Japan, in 2011, according to the article. He also revealed that he is of Chinese-Australian descent.
He has has written several op-eds detailing his life in North Korea.
In addition to writing about his wedding for the Independent Australian, Sigley also detailed his life as an Australian living in North Korea in an op-ed to The Guardian.
In the op-ed, he revealed that he was “one of only a handful of long-term western residents, one of only three western students, and the only Australian in the entire country.”
He added that he became interested in socialism after studying the Russian revolution in high school, and went on to study in China and lived in the same dorm as a North Korean. His interactions with the North Korean “piqued his curiosity,” and he began his Master’s in contemporary North Korean literature in April 2018.
He received special treatment as a foreigner.
While social media is largely banned in North Korea, Sigley was still able to access Twitter and Facebook, where he uploads photos and videos of his experiences.
Sigley told PRI in February that North Korean authorities have not complained or attempted to censor his posts, allowing him much more digital freedom than an average North Korean.
Several of Sigley’s Twitter posts indicate he received special treatment in North Korea as a foreigner.
In a November 2018 Twitter post, he said he and some friends were the “only foreigners allowed to take Pyongyang Metro without a guide.”
Foreign students are the only foreigners allowed to take #Pyongyang Metro without a guide. Today I rode alone from uni to downtown to meet my tourists @TongilTours . I am half-Asian so can blend in. I listen to #Buckethead through earphones as I ride. This is normal. #NorthKorea pic.twitter.com/ubcdXZeaNL
— Alek Sigley (@AlekSigley) November 18, 2018
In a post from June 12, Sigley said during a tour to the zoo that he was able to to pay a “cheaper rate” and was offered “preferential treatment.”
The Natural History Museum was 4,000 won and the Zoo was 5,000 won ($1= about 8,000 won). We were grateful for such preferential treatment.
자연박물관은 4,000원이였는데 동물원은 5,000원이였다 ($1= 약 8,000원). 우리를 그렇게 우대해줘서 감사했다. pic.twitter.com/yD413xhRbV
— Alek Sigley (@AlekSigley) June 12, 2019
He appeared to be quite friendly with the locals.
In his op-ed in The Guardian, he explained that his interactions with local Pyongyang residents “can be limited at times,” though he was able to eat and dine around the city freely.
He told PRI in February that as a student, he can roam around the capital without the need for an organised tour or a government-imposed guardian as most other foreign visitors are required.
In his social media posts, he appears to have a jovial relationship with at least some North Koreans. In one video dated May 30, he can be seen singing karaoke with people from a local printer store.
Went to the printer store to print some exam prep materials and unexpectedly end up singing "Pyongyang Cold Noodles are the Best" and other NK songs w/ staff
인쇄가게에서 시험 준비 자료를 인쇄하러 갔다가 갑작스럽게 직원들과 "평양랭면 제일이야"를 비롯한 북조선 노래를 부르게 되었다 pic.twitter.com/723P9hIUKt
— Alek Sigley (@AlekSigley) May 30, 2019
In another post, he gave media interviews during the National Kimchi Exhibition in Pyongyang as curious locals looked on.
— Alek Sigley (@AlekSigley) January 15, 2019
He visited his family in Perth on February 4.
Back home in Perth to celebrate Chinese New Year with the family after two eventful semesters at Kim Il Sung University.
Mum made soy sauce duck (醬鴨) and simmered Chinese cabbage, dad made salad and kimchi. Yum!
Happy Year of the Pig!
— Alek Sigley (@AlekSigley) February 4, 2019
Sigley returned to Australia earlier this year to celebrate Chinese New Year with his family after completing two semesters at Kim Il Sung University.
“Happy Year of the Pig!” he wrote next to a picture of his parents.
Sigley’s last tweet was on June 24, just days before reports of his alleged detention surfaced.
He was released from detention on July 4, over a week after he was reported missing. He refuses to speak about his experience.
Sigley was released from detention in North Korea on the morning of July 4, 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.
“He honestly admitted his spying acts of systematically collecting and offering data about the domestic situation of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) and repeatedly asked for pardon, apologizing for encroachment upon the sovereignty of the DPRK.”
NK News, an independent media site that hosted Sigley’s columns about life in North Korea, rejected 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.
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