Australian tour guide and student Alek Sigley has been reported as missing in North Korea.
Sigley, who is believed to be the only Australian living in North Korea, is the founder of Tongil Tours, an Australian-based company providing guided tours to North Korea, and a student at Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang.
His family and friends have reported that they haven’t heard from him in a week, which they say is unusual. A spokeswoman for the Sigley family, Lesley Parker, told ABC News 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.
The Minister for Trade Tourism and Investment Simon Birmingham today on RN Breakfast said that the government was seeking clarification about his whereabouts.
“[T]he fact that we have not been able to confirm [Sigley’s whereabouts] t is a demonstration as to how difficult it is in terms of dealing with North Korea. And that’s why our advice to people is to reconsider your need to travel if you are looking at going to North Korea. It is an unpredictable destination to travel to with the circumstances that are well beyond Australia’s control in terms of what they may encounter.
“We have diplomatic relations with other nations who are helping us in this regard, in particular with Sweden. And so their embassy in North Korea is trying to work with us in our assistance and in the meantime, we provide whatever consular assistance we can to the family, giving them any updates on information or activities to date,” Minister Birmingham said.
Finance Minister Matthias Cormann told ABC News the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was providing support to Sigley’s family, but said that there had been “some complications”:
“Our embassy in South Korea has reached out to relevant officials in North Korea,” Minister Cormann 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.”
ABC News said that 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.
Sigley told Sky News in December last year he was aware of cases where foreigners in North Korea had been detained 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 said.
“I’ve never felt threatened and this whole year has been a period of rapprochement.”
Perth USAsia Centre chief executive and Korean expert Gordon Flake told ABC News 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.”
Smartraveller currently advises travellers against visiting the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, owing to the country’s “very different laws and regulations affecting foreign visitors” and “the risks from intermittent DPRK threats against international interests.”