Australian freed in N. Korea keeps mum about detention

Alek Sigley

Australian student Alek Sigley, center, is escorted as he arrives at the airport in Tokyo on Thursday, July 4, 2019. The Australian student who vanished in North Korea more than a week ago arrived in Tokyo Thursday, July 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

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TOKYO (AP) — An Australian student on Friday thanked Swedish and his country’s diplomats for securing his release in North Korea but kept mum about what led to his weeklong detention.

“I intend now to return to normal life but wanted to first publicly thank everyone who worked to ensure I was safe and well,” Alek Sigley said in a statement released by his family’s spokeswoman in Australia, a day after he was flew from Pyongyang to Beijing and then Tokyo to be reunited with his Japanese wife.

He asked media to respect his privacy and said he has no plans to hold a news conference.

Sigley, 29, 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 on June 25. He had posted about his experiences in North Korea and boasted about the extraordinary freedom he had as one of the few foreign students living there.

“I just want everyone to know I am OK, and to thank them for their concern for my wellbeing and their support for my family over the past week. I’m very happy to be back with my wife, Yuka, and to have spoken with my family in Perth (Australia) to reassure them I’m well,” he said in the statement.

He specifically thanked Sweden’s special envoy to North Korea, Kent Rolf Magnus Harstedt, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne for his release.

Swedish diplomats had raised concerns about Sigley with North Korean authorities in Pyongyang, where Australia does not have an embassy.

Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said Sigley was lucky to be free, and suggested he should never return to North Korea.

“It could have ended up very differently,” Dutton told the Nine Network television.

He also had some word of advice for Sigley and other Australians who were thinking of visiting North Korea.

“My advice would be pretty clear. I’d stay in Japan, I’d go back to South Korea, I’d come back to Australia. All of those would have to be better options before he returns to North Korea and we’ve got advisories out to that effect, warning people,” he said. “So there needs to be an application of common sense here and I don’t think he’d put himself back in that situation.”

Despite such advice, Michelle Joyce, Sigley’s Sydney-based partner in their guided tour business, Tongil Tours, said on Friday she wanted to lead the next tour to North Korea as early as August.

“I would like to take that tour, but I’m not 100% sure yet. I want to see what Alek thinks first,” Joyce said. “We have to do some crisis control because we’ve had to cancel two tours.”

Joyce said it wasn’t profit that drove the former university friends to run the tours for Westerners since 2013.

“Even if we have episodes like this, the gains are so much greater than the losses really. It’s a peace project, it’s an engagement project, it’s a bridge between North Korea and the rest of the world — that’s why I want to keep going, no matter what other people say,” Joyce said.

Joyce, who is the Australian-born daughter of a South Korean mother and speaks Korean, said she was one of the last people from outside North Korea to speak to Sigley before his family reported they had lost contact on Tuesday morning last week.

“The first time I lost contact with him, I thought that’s funny and then the second time I thought this might be bad,” Joyce said.

“But I thought about it and thought what could possibly go wrong? I do know our business partners and they would never do anything to hurt him. Even when I thought of the worst case scenario, it seemed so unlikely. It seemed so far-fetched. So I thought I’m sure he’ll be fine,” she said.


Wang reported from Beijing. Associated Press writers Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, South Korea, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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