Australia is seeking an “urgent clarification” from North Korea’s communist regime over the whereabouts of student Alek Sigley, who has been missing and out of contact from his family since Tuesday.
Sigley, 29, has spent the past two years living in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang while studying at Kim Il-sung University, having been “fascinated with socialism” since a young age. His wife and his Perth-based family have not heard from him since Tuesday, sparking fears that he may have been arrested by the country’s notoriously watchful authorities.
“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,” they said in a statement. “Alek’s family hope to re-establish contact with him soon.”
His wife, 26-year-old Yuka Morinaga, told local media that she was “very concerned” by her husband’s abrupt silence on WhatsApp.
“We don’t know what’s happened. We don’t even know if he has been detained or not. I’m worried, but we don’t know anything yet,” she said. “He is always trying to demystify North Korea unlike the typical Western media. He tries to understand the people there.”
Sigley is usually active on social media platforms such as Instagram, but his family claim they have shut down all his accounts down to “limit unnecessary speculation and commentary on those channels.”
Speaking to reporters at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, Australian Finance Minister Mathias Cormann confirmed his government is trying to provide consular assistance to Sigley should he have been detained.
“There is obviously some complications [sic] in providing consular assistance into North Korea,” said Cormann. “We work through the Swedish government in North Korea and all of these steps are underway. There is not really much more that we can say at this stage, other than that we are undertaking all of the necessary steps to provide the appropriate support.”
Sigley wrote of his experiences in North Korea in an article for The Guardian last year in which he boasted about having “nearly unprecedented access” to the most isolated country on earth.
“As a long-term foreign resident on a student visa, I have nearly unprecedented access to Pyongyang,” he wrote at the time. “I’m free to wander around the city, without anyone accompanying me. Interaction with locals can be limited at times, but I can shop and dine almost anywhere I want.”
Sigley’s disappearance comes more than three years after American student Otto Warmbier was arrested and jailed on charges of trying to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel. After being sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in March 2016, Warmbier incurred a severe neurological injury and was returned to the United States in a vegetative state. He passed away six days after his return.