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North Korea claims released Australian student was 'spying'

Alek disappeared in June but was later freed and deported from North Korea.

Alek Sigley following his release.
Alek Sigley following his release.
Image: Eugene Hoshiko

THE AUSTRALIAN STUDENT who was being held in North Korea was “spying”, the state media has said. 

Alek Sigley (29) disappeared around two weeks ago, prompting deep concern about his fate, but he was later freed and flew to Japan on Thursday.

Official North Korean news agency KCNA said Sigley admitted “he had been spying by collecting our internal information and sharing it with others, and repeatedly asked for our forgiveness for infringing on our sovereignty”.

One of just a handful of Westerners living and studying in North Korea, Sigley was detained on 25 June for promoting propaganda against the country online, including on specialist website NK News, which rejected the accusations.

“Sigley, upon request by anti-DPRK news outlets such as NK News, on numerous occasions transferred information that he gathered while travelling to every corner of Pyongyang using his status as an international student, including photographs and analysis,” it said.

“The government of DPRK has exercised humanitarian forbearance and deported him from our grounds on 4 July.”

Sigley’s detention came just days before a G20 summit, and a landmark meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Trump was closely involved in the case of University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier, who was imprisoned during a tour of the authoritarian state in 2016.

Doctors said 22-year-old Warmbier suffered severe brain damage while in detention, fell into a coma and died days after arriving back in the United States.

Sigley organised tours to North Korea, and ran a number of social media sites, which usually had a stream of apolitical content about life in North Korea. 

His blog posts focused on everyday Pyongyang – everything from the city’s dining scene to North Korean app reviews – and he married his Japanese wife there last year.

Chad O’Carroll, director of the NK News, said in a statement on Saturday that Sigley’s columns for the site “presented an apolitical and insightful view of life in Pyongyang”.

“The six articles Alek published represent the full extent of his work with us and the idea that those columns, published transparently under his name between January and April 2019, are anti-state in nature is a misrepresentation which we reject,” he said.

On Friday, Sigley said he was planning to “return to normal life” but offered no details of his detention, adding he would not be conducting any interviews or holding a press conference.

The case was also complicated by Australia’s lack of diplomatic representation in North Korea.

Sigley specifically thanked Sweden’s envoy to North Korea, who helped negotiate his release.

© – AFP 2019

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