The Department of Foreign Affairs is providing consular assistance to the family of a 29-year-old Perth student and tour guide who is missing in North Korea.
- Alek Sigley’s friends reported him missing after an “unusual” period of online silence
- He grew up in Perth but was studying in North Korea and led tours there
- The Department of Foreign Affairs is urgently trying to clarify his situation
Alek Sigley, who speaks fluent Korean, began studying for a master’s degree in Korean literature at Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang last year.
He is believed to be the only Australian living in North Korea and the ABC understands friends of Mr Sigley reported him missing earlier this week.
In a statement, the department said it was “urgently seeking clarification” about the man’s situation.
DFAT is urgently trying to locate Australian Alek Sigley who has been reported missing in North Korea. (Facebook: Alek Sigley)
It was unable to confirm if Mr Sigley had been arrested.
“Owing to our privacy obligations we will not provide further comment,” it said.
Family reports an ‘unusual’ silence
A spokeswoman for the Sigley family, Lesley Parker, said it had not been confirmed if Mr Sigley had been detained.
“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,” she said.
“Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is therefore seeking to confirm his whereabouts and welfare.”
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann confirmed consular assistance was being provided to Mr Sigley’s family but said there were “some complications”.
“Our embassy in South Korea has reached out to relevant officials in North Korea,” he said.
“There is obviously some complications in providing consular assistance into North Korea. 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.”
Mr Sigley speaks fluent Korean and is the founder of a travel company specialising in north Korean tours. (Supplied: Sigley family)
Mr Cormann was unable to say whether Prime Minister Scott Morrison would raise Mr Sigley’s case with US President Donald Trump when he meets with him in Japan tonight ahead of the G20 talks.
Australia’s diplomatic presence in North Korea is limited, although consular assistance can be provided by other nations.
A spokesperson from Sweden’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was “aware of the matter and understand it falls under their bilateral agreement with Australia to provide consular assistance to citizens in North Korea”.
Tour guide worked in North Korea
Mr Sigley grew up in Perth and attended Rossmoyne Senior High School, before attending the Australian National University in Canberra and moving overseas to continue his studies.
He was awarded a prestigious Colombo Plan scholarship in 2016 to study at Sogang University in Seoul and undertake an internship with the Korean Herald newspaper.
He is the founder of Tongil Tours, an Australian-based company specialising in guided tours to North Korea since 2013.
In a post for NK News, a US website about North Korea, Mr Sigley said he had “always been fascinated by socialism”.
Friends of Australian Alek Sigley reported him missing in North Korea earlier this week. (Facebook: Alek Sigley)
He also said he had started Tongil Tours out of “a desire to further engagement and mutual understanding between Westerners and North Koreans, and the unique and fascinating experience of traveling in North Korea”.
In 2017 he told the ABC North Korea was “a fascinating country, there’s no other country in the world like North Korea” and said it was not dangerous to travel there.
“If we thought it was unsafe, we’d stop doing these tours,” he said.
“We wouldn’t be able to bear the moral and legal responsibility of taking people to North Korea if it was dangerous.”
Active on social media, Mr Sigley does not appear to have touched his Twitter or Facebook accounts for several days.
It is understood associates of Mr Sigley studying in Beijing had noticed a change in tone in his social media content in recent months, with suggestions it had become more sympathetic to the North Korean Government.
Earlier this year he wrote a first-person account of living in North Korea for The Guardian, describing it as a state “in transition” with a burgeoning consumer class that enjoys dining out, fashion and smartphones.
Mr Sigley does not appear to have touched his social media accounts in days. (Facebook: Alek Sigley)
He said he became interested in North Korea after studying with North Korean students in China.
“The interactions I had with these students really piqued my curiosity — they were completely at odds with the stereotypical view of a ‘brainwashed’ people,” he wrote.
‘I’ve never felt threatened’
Mr Sigley told Sky News in December last year he was aware of cases involving foreigners in North Korea, including US student Otto Warmbier’s detention and eventual death, but was not concerned about being monitored by the North Korean government.
“I’ve read up on all these cases in detail and it’s part of my job as a tour guide to understand the culture,” he told the network.
“I’ve never felt threatened and this whole year has been a period of rapprochement.”
In May last year he wrote a blog post about attending a ballet performance seated 15 metres away from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who he said was greeted with rapturous applause by an ecstatic crowd.
Australian Alek Sigley married his Japanese-born wife Yuka Morinaga last year in Pyongyang. (Facebook: Alek Sigley)
Mr Sigley got married in Pyongyang to his Japanese-born wife Yuka Morinaga last year, but his wife is not thought to be living in North Korea.
His father, Gary Sigley, is an academic specialising in Asian Studies who has previously worked at the University of Western Australia and has written extensively on China.
Perth USAsia Centre chief executive and Korean expert Gordon Flake said Mr Sigley’s disappearance was concerning but urged against jumping to conclusions.
“For the 30 years that I have been following North Korea, there’s a long list of people who had been reported to have been executed, or exiled, or sent down to the farm, who have subsequently reappeared,” he said.
“So at this point I just urge caution.
“Let’s wait until we get more information, wait until the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is able to make contact on this issue with the North Korean Government, then we’ll know a bit more.
“But … from a parent’s perspective, it’s not good news.”
Alek Sigley’s father, Gary Sigley, is a professor of China studies based in Perth. (LinkedIn: Gary Sigley)
Journalist Trudy McIntosh, who went on a Tongil Tours trip to North Korea led by Mr Sigley several years ago, said she was shocked by his disappearance as he was not the type to take risks.
“He was very cautious when we were there, always kind of warning other people on the tour about what should and shouldn’t be done, so he certainly wasn’t reckless when I knew him,” she said.
‘High risk’ warning to Australian travellers
The Commonwealth Government’s official advice about travel to North Korea is that there is a “high level of risk” and potential travellers should reconsider their need to visit the country.
“Travel to the DPRK is uncommon,” the Government’s Smartraveller website advises.
“Foreign visitors have been subject to arbitrary arrest and long-term detention.
“Foreigners can be arrested, detained or expelled for activities that would not be considered crimes in Australia, including perceived disrespectful behaviour and unwarranted interaction with local nationals.”