An Australian student who was reportedly arrested in North Korea’s Pyongyang may have been used as a pawn in political negotiations, an expert has suggested.
Perth-raised Alek Sigley, 29, has been reportedly detained in the highly-secretive nation with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade “urgently seeking clarification" on his whereabouts.
Korean foreign policy expert Dr Euan Graham from La Trobe University told Yahoo News Australia that comparisons of his disappearance to the high-profile detention of Otto Warmbier, who died just days after his return to the US, must be discouraged.
“A lot of people are comparing it to Otto Warmbier but it is a very different case,” he said.
“(Alek) has been in North Korea for over a year and he speaks Korean.”
Dr Graham noted that at 29, Sigley isn’t a young student in his early 20s who may not necessarily consider the repercussions of certain behaviours in the dictatorship-led country.
“It makes it more surprising this has happened,” he said.
Mr Sigley himself stated in December to Sky News that he was well aware of cases of foreign visitors being detained in North Korea.
“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 explained.
While reluctant to speculate on the cause of Mr Sigley’s rumoured detention, Dr Graham said it appeared unlikely his social media activity would have contributed.
He said his social media activity, while frequent, was unlikely to be of concern, with his content avoiding political issues and instead concentrating on popular culture and food.
“It’s not pro regime but not unfriendly to the regime,” he told Yahoo News Australia.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade confirmed to Yahoo News Australia that Mr Sigley had not been seen since his recent arrest.
DFAT says it is "urgently seeking clarification" after Mr Sigley’s reported arrest and are providing consular assistance to his family.
Disappearance linked to predicted third US-North Korea summit
Dr Graham instead suggested Sigley’s disappearance may be a political move from North Korea with one eye on a predicted third summit with the US and Donald Trump.
“There’s the possibility that there is a political aspect to the case,” he said.
“The North Koreans have done this in the past. They have abducted Americans and used it as leverage in negotiations with the Americans.”
US-based North Korean expert Marcus Noland agrees, saying Sigley’s detention could be used as a bargaining chip to benefit both parties.
“One would think this plays to Trump’s fantasy. You dangle the hostage out there and make the release part of the deal for a meeting,” he told the Australian Financial Review.
“And Trump can portray himself as a man of action and friend and pal of the Australian people... that would be their motivation.”
Friend warned against North Korean visits
North Korean analyst and friend of Sigley, Benjamin R. Young, took to Twitter in the wake of news of the Australian’s disappearance.
Young, who visited North Korea with Sigley in 2012 on a project trip, urged people not to visit the nation after Sigley became the second friend who appears to have been arrested in “communist Asia”.
“For the 9 millionth time, my friends, please stop going to North Korea,” he wrote.
“You're putting yourself in jeopardy every time you set foot on North Korean soil no matter how much they may seem to like you at first.”
Young has since deleted his tweets.
Sigley, who has also been studying for a master's degree in Korean literature at Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University, had been planning a tour in August.
It promised guests a visit to the demilitarised zone separating North and South Korea.
"Get right up to the border with South Korea, even technically cross it in one of the negotiation huts which lie between the northern and southern sides of the compound and are bisected by the border," the company's website says.
Mr Sigley was active on social media as recently as Monday, tweeting images of the highly-documented Ryugyong Hotel.
Dr Graham said he was unaware of the final post and any significance surrounding it.
The Australian also married his Japanease wife Yuka Morinaga in Pyongyang last year, however it understood she doesn’t live in North Korea.
Lesley Parker, a spokeswoman for Sigley’s family, said there hadn’t been any confirmation that 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 told the ABC.
New signage above the main entrance to the Ryugyong Hotel bearing its name and logo. A sign that it will soon be open for business?
류경호텔 정문에 걸려있는 새 간판. 간판은 류경호텔의 이름과 상표를 표시하고 있다. 개업날이 다가오고 있는가? pic.twitter.com/bwdDot50ya
— Alek Sigley (@AlekSigley) June 24, 2019
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