TOKYO >> An Australian student released after a week in detention in North Korea arrived in Tokyo on Thursday after telling reporters he was in “very good” condition, without saying what happened to him.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced to Parliament that Alek Sigley, 29, had been released by North Korea following intervention from Swedish diplomats and described him as safe and well. After Sigley’s arrival in Beijing, he later went to Tokyo to reunite with his wife, who is Japanese.
At Beijing’s airport, he gave a peace sign to reporters and said, “I’m OK, I’m OK, I’m good. I’m very good,” but did not respond to questions about what had happened in Pyongyang.
He had been studying at a Pyongyang university and guiding tours in the North Korean capital before disappearing from social media contact with family and friends a week ago Tuesday. He had posted often on social media about his experiences in North Korea and had boasted about the extraordinary freedom he had as one of the few foreign students living there.
His father, Gary Sigley, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Western Australia, said his son had been treated well in North Korea.
It was a much happier outcome than the case of American college student Otto Warmbier, who was convicted of attempting to steal a propaganda poster and imprisoned in North Korea. Warmbier died shortly after being sent back home to the U.S. in a vegetative state in June 2017.
Sigley’s friend and fellow student of North Korea, University of Technology Sydney academic Bronwen Dalton, said Sigley’s wife was thrilled by his release.
“We were jumping up and down and we love Sweden,” Dalton said.
“He’s a fine, young, emerging Asian scholar, he is very applied to his studies. I really doubted whether he did actually anything wrong by the regime,” Dalton added.
Swedish diplomats had raised concerns about Sigley with North Korean authorities in Pyongyang, where Australia does not have an embassy.
“Swedish authorities advised the Australian government that they met with senior officials from the DPRK yesterday and raised the issue of Alek’s disappearance on Australia’s behalf,” Morrison said, using the official acronym for North Korea.
“This outcome demonstrates the value of discrete behind-the-scenes work of officials in resolving complex and sensitive consular cases in close partnership with other governments,” Morrison said.
In an interview with Swedish public radio, Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom said the country’s special envoy to North Korea, Kent Harstedt, “raised the issue of this case at highest level” in North Korea and the release happened during Harstedt’s visit there.
North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency has not mentioned Sigley. Its report on the Swedish delegation headed by Harstedt said they visited a stamp museum and shoe factory during their four-day stay before heading home Thursday.
The Australian prime minister’s comments in Parliament were the first confirmation Sigley had been detained.
Morrison said he discussed Sigley’s disappearance with other world leaders attending the Group of 20 summit in Japan last week and accepted offers to find out what happened to him. Morrison dined with President Donald Trump in Osaka but declined to say with whom he discussed Sigley’s disappearance.
North Korea has been accused in the past of detaining Westerners and using them as political pawns to gain concessions.
Leonid Petrov, an Australian National University expert on North Korea and a friend of Sigley, last week speculated that Sigley had been “deliberately cut off from means of communications” temporarily because Trump was in the region.
Petrov said on Thursday that he had not been able to contact Sigley since he had been freed, but still suspected his disappearance was linked to Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Sunday.
“It was a time of sensitivity in North Korea after the visit of (Chinese President) Xi Jinping and before the visit by Donald Trump,” Petrov said.
“I expected this to happen a couple of days earlier, but it was a good thing to see the Swedish government delegation arrive on Monday just after the summit. It was the right time to be there,” Petrov added.