Australian student arrested in North Korea

North Korean flags fly from buildings in Kim Il Sung Square in PyongyangImage copyright
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The Australian man had been living and studying in Pyongyang, reports said

Australia says it is urgently seeking clarification of reports an Australian man has been detained in North Korea.

Australian and South Korea media have identified him as Alek Sigley, a 29-year-old student living in Pyongyang.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has not identified the man due to privacy obligations.

It said it was providing consular assistance to “the family of an Australian man who has been reported as being detained in North Korea”.

“It certainly is a very serious set of circumstances,” Attorney-General Christian Porter told a Perth radio station on Thursday.

The government said embassy representatives in South Korea had contacted “relevant officials” in North Korea.

It is not known why the man may have been detained. Mr Sigley’s friends reported him missing earlier this week, the Australian Broadcasting Corp said.

Who is Alek Sigley?

Originally from Perth, Mr Sigley has been living in the totalitarian, communist state for the past year while pursuing a master’s degree in North Korean literature at Kim Il-sung University.

Fluent in Korean, he also runs a business providing tours for Western tourists visiting the country.

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Media captionWhat is life like in North Korea?

In March, he described himself as “the only Australian living in North Korea” in a piece published by The Guardian.

He said he had become interested in living in North Korea after meeting some citizens while studying in China.

“As a long-term foreign resident on a student visa, I have nearly unprecedented access to Pyongyang,” he wrote.

“I’m free to wander around the city, without anyone accompanying me.”

Last year, he told Sky News that as a Westerner living in the oppressive regime, he had “never felt threatened” despite some high-profile cases involving foreigners.

Has this happened before?

Several foreigners have previously been detained in North Korea, sometimes for illegally entering the country or for “committing hostile criminal acts against the state”.

In 2014, Australian John Short was detained and deported after apparently leaving Christian pamphlets at a tourist site.

Religious activity is severely restricted in the North and missionaries have been arrested on many previous occasions.

US student Otto Warmbier was jailed in North Korea in 2016 for stealing a propaganda sign during an organised tour.

He later died days after he was returned to the US in a coma, following 17 months in detention.

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Otto Warmbier (C) was arrested in North Korea as a tourist in 2016

North Korea has denied mistreating the 22-year-old student but his parents insist that his death in July 2017 was the consequence of torture.

The UN has criticised North Korea’s record on human rights, saying citizens in the totalitarian state live under “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations”.

Despite recent historic meetings with the United States and South Korea, the nation also remains isolated from the world due to tensions over its nuclear ambitions.

Like many other Western nations, Australia does not have an embassy in North Korea. It has limited diplomatic access through the Swedish embassy.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison is currently in Osaka, Japan where he is due to meet other world leaders at the G20 Summit.

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