Australian student Alek Sigley, who was arrested in North Korea. Photo: Facebook

A 29-year-old Australian masters degree student has been arrested in Pyongyang for unknown reasons. Alek Sigley, who has been studying Korean literature at the elite Kim Il-sung University, is a fluent Korean speaker and one of a tiny handful of Westerners studying in the country.

He also maintains a high profile on social media, where he has been largely upbeat about his experiences in North Korea.

Although it did not identify Sigley, Canberra’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) told Australian media it was providing consular assistance “to the family of an Australian man who has been reported as being detained in North Korea” and is “urgently seeking clarification.”

“Owing to our privacy obligations we will not provide further comment,” a DFAT spokesperson added.

Asia Times has confirmed, through a source in Seoul in a position to know, that the Australian man arrested was, indeed, Sigley.

The source added that the Swedish Embassy – which customarily takes care of Westerners who encounter problems in North Korea but whose nations do not maintain diplomatic missions in the country – would be Sigley’s advocate in Pyongyang.

Social media in socialist isolation

Sigley’s social media entries have a wide following among North Korean watchers in Seoul and elsewhere. On his Twitter feed and Facebook page, which he updates from inside the country, he provides a generally positive view of life in the isolated state.

He avoids politics, instead posting both text and photographs on such day-to-day matters as buying tailored athletic gear in Pyongyang, the kind of food available to foreign students at and around the foreign students’ dormitory, and even the attractions of Pyongyang Zoo.

His writings are not restricted to social media. He penned an article for The Guardian on the relative freedoms he enjoys in Pyongyang and is a frequent contributor from Pyongyang to specialist, Seoul-based media NK News, where his articles cover North Korean mobile apps, Pyongyang restaurants and local fashion.

“Sigley is a knowledgeable observer of North Korea issues and we are surprised by reports of his sudden detention,” said NK News publisher Chad O’Carroll, in a posting on the site. “We sincerely hope a rapid release can be secured by relevant authorities.”

O’Carroll declined to speak to Asia Times about Sigley, citing the sensitivity of the case. Another friend of Sigley declined to speak for the same reason.

It is not known if Sigley’s articles and postings from Pyongyang irked authorities, or even violated the terms of his visa. Many foreign tourists and reporters who travel to North Korea refrain from posting on social media or filing stories until after they have exited the country. Most North Koreans are unable to access the world wide web – though they have an extensive, firewalled Intrenet – but foreign residents and tourists are offered Internet access.

Yet, Sigley’s writing on the country were largely positive – he even held his wedding, to a Japanese wife, in North Korea – raising further questions over the reasons for his arrest.

The news surrounding Sigley follows an unconfirmed and unsubstantiated report in a Japanese tabloid yesterday that Kenji Fujimoto, a high-profile chef who worked for two generations of North Korea’s ruling Kim family, and who operated a sushi restaurant in Pyongyang, had been arrested for alleged CIA connections.

The perils of Pyongyang

While it is common for foreigners to be arrested in countries around the world, those arrested in North Korea tend to make news due to the tiny numbers of tourists, apart from Chinese, who visit the country – and due to the country’s unique political situation, which often requires high-level political intervention to free the detainees.

Those arrested range from Korean-American and Korea-Canadian pastors who were allegedly engaged in proselytizing to an American ex-special forces veteran, on a tour in the country, who was detained for several days and questioned about his activities during the Korean War.

The most notorious case was that of American student Otto Warmbier who was arrested in 2015 for allegedly attempting to steal a propaganda poster from the hotel he was staying in – possibly as a prank. He was returned to his family in the United States in a comatose state after a high-level US intervention in 2017.

He died soon after without being able to communicate about his experiences.

The reason for the severe brain damage he suffered in North Korean custody remains mysterious. While many allege it was due to torture, some have raised the question of whether it might have resulted from a suicide attempt.

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