Australia investigates claims its national detained in N Korea

Government seeking urgent clarification on whereabouts of student Alek Sigley who was reported missing by friends.

    The Australian government said on Thursday it was “urgently seeking clarification” on reports that its national had been detained in North Korea.

    Australian and South Korean media have identified the man as Alek Sigley, a 29-year-old student at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang.

    “The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is providing consular assistance … to the family of an Australian man who has been reported as being detained in North Korea,” the department said in a statement.

    “The department is urgently seeking clarification. Owing to our privacy obligations, we will not provide further comment,” the statement added.

    Sigley, from the west coast city of Perth, is one of only a handful of western students at the university in the North Korean capital.

    As well as studying Korean literature, he also founded a travel company offering “educational” guided tours of the authoritarian state. He last posted on social media two days ago, sharing a picture of the mammoth Ryugyong Hotel.

    Reuters reported a source familiar with the situation saying Sigley had been reported missing by friends.

    Official media in North Korea have not mentioned the student. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, the country’s main spy agency, said it could not confirm the report.

    Australia has no diplomatic mission of its own in Pyongyang and is represented there by the Swedish embassy.

    Pizza, football and friends

    Canberra advises against non-essential travel to North Korea – where several foreigners have been detained in the past.

    In 2016, Otto Warmbier, an American student was sentenced to 15 years hard labour for trying to steal a propaganda poster from the wall of his hotel while on a tour of the country.

    Doctors said the 22-year-old suffered severe brain damage while in detention. He was returned to the United States in a coma and died a few days after arriving home in June 2017.

    In a post in January this year, Sigley described a strong interest in East Asia and “socialism” and recounted his first visit to North Korea in 2012.

    The son of an Anglo-Australian man and Chinese mother, he previously studied at Fudan University in Shanghai and in South Korea before moving to Pyongyang, according to his post.    

    “I’m enrolled in a master’s degree in Korean literature in the university’s postgraduate school,” he wrote. “Because I am the only foreign student in this particular program, my courses are all conducted one-on-one with the teacher.”

    Steering clear of politics, Sigley’s Twitter feed includes regular pictures of his everyday life from eating pizza to visiting the zoo and hanging out with friends.

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