Alek Sigley, who went missing in North Korea last week, has been “released and safe” as declared by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. The 29-year-old Australian was reported missing in late June but was freed on Thursday after Swedish officials in Pyongyang met with the North Korean government.
According to NK News, an outlet specializing in North Korean news and analysis, Sigley was detained for several days and was accused of “spying” for news outlets. ABC News Australia reports that Sigley had a “very active social media presence” and that all of his social media postings “cast North Korea in a very favorable light.”
Thus, it was quite a surprise to his family and friends to lose contact with him. Well aware of North Korea’s appalling human rights track record and infamous reputation of detaining and accusing foreigners of espionage, his family and friends began to panic when they lost communication with Sigley after a few days.
The Australian Foreign Affairs Ministry and Prime Minister Morrison could not release a statement because there was no confirmation on Alek Sigley’s whereabouts or welfare. This confirmation was difficult to seek out because Australia does not have an embassy in North Korea.
However, as reported by ABC News Australia, the Prime Minister remained very active behind the scenes. Morrison was at the G20 in Osaka where he was able to get advice from nations who have had citizens abducted, detained, or disappeared in North Korea. Canberra thus turned to an intermediary – the Swedish government – to negotiate the release of Sigley.
The Scandinavian nation of Sweden has a long history of acting as a diplomatic intermediary with the isolated dictatorship – a so-called “protecting power” for several Western governments, reports the BBC. Morrison later thanked Sweden for its help, expressing his “deepest gratitude to the Swedish authorities for their invaluable assistance.” He said that Swedish authorities had met with senior North Korean officials on Wednesday and “raised the issue of Alek’s disappearance on Australia’s behalf.”
Sweden’s unique role stems from a long history of neutrality dating back to the early 19th century when Sweden took the position that it was best to be free of military alliances in peacetime so it could stay neutral if war broke out. After becoming the first Western country to establish formal diplomatic relations with North Korea in 1973, Sweden maintained a functioning embassy for nearly 50 years. Sigley’s case is not the first time Sweden has helped other countries with tricky diplomatic affairs, reports the BBC.
On Saturday, North Korea’s state-run news agency KCNA publicized that Mr Sigley had “on numerous occasions transferred information, including photographs and analysis, that he gathered while travelling to every corner of Pyongyang using his status as an international student.” He had done this “upon request by anti-DPRK new outlets such as NK News,” added KCNA. The government decided to deport him on humanitarian grounds after he “honestly admitted that he had been spying… and repeatedly asked for our forgiveness for infringing on our sovereignty,” they announced.
NK News has rejected Pyongyang’s claims that he spied for them, according to BBC. They argued that Sigley’s columns only “presented an apolitical view of life in Pyongyang.” Despite the discord, NK News released in a statement that they appreciated “the DPRK’s decision to promptly release Sigley on humanitarian grounds.”
Mr Sigley has not commented on why he was detained. Following his release, he flew to Japan where his wife lives. ABC News Australia reports that he is likely to come back to Australia soon.
Although the full account of what happened to Mr Sigley in North Korea has not been disclosed, this story shows the power of diplomacy and cooperation between nations. The Australian Prime Ministers’s actions were applaudable as he avoided publicly confronting North Korea, something that would be provocative and potentially harmful to Mr Sigley. He instead brought attention to the issue at the G20 and relied on an intermediary.
Clearly, in times of conflict, forums like the G20 are valuable as leaders can address pressing issues and set forth solutions. Also useful is the “protecting power” of states like Sweden to maintain their neutrality in times of crisis.