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Australian tour operator reported arrested in North Korea

June 28, 2019 Headline News No Comments Email Email

Alek Sigley, the founder of Tongil Tours, an established Australian-based company specialising in guided tours to North Korea, has reportedly vanished in North Korea and is feared to have been arrested and detained there.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) confirmed yesterday it was providing support to the family of a man detained in North Korea and was “urgently seeking clarification” about his situation.

Tongil Tours, which Sigley founded in 2013, specialises in educational tourism to North Korea, with its website currently advertising a summer language program there, due to begin on Saturday.

In his most recent blogpost on the Tongil Tours website, posted on 20 June, Sigley wrote of visiting restaurants in Pyongyang with foreign students. A few days ago, he tweeted about a new hotel opening in the capital. Then his tweets stopped.

A Perth-born Australian who speaks fluent Korean, Sigley is reported to have been living in North Korea while he studied for a master’s degree in Korean literature at Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang.

Sigley is believed to be the only Australian living in North Korea, according to the ABC.

Alek Sigley speaks fluent Korean and is the founder of Tongil Tours, a travel company specialising in North Korean tours. (Facebook: Alek Sigley)

Tongil Tours says it is committed to helping friends from all over the world experience North Korea travel that is “safe, educational, and unforgettable”.

“Tongil” (통일/統一 in Korean) means “unification” and the tour company says the name “expresses the hope of the Korean people that those on both sides of the peninsula will one day put aside their differences to build a common future together as one country again”.

The website says: “Our desire is to help travellers have a more nuanced understanding of North Korea and its people. This means adopting a more measured approach to the country: looking past the stereotypes to see the complexities of North Korea’s culture, history, and society.

“Most importantly, we want travellers to experience the common humanity that both North Koreans and outsiders share. Therefore we place great emphasis on providing opportunities for interaction with local people on our North Korea tours.”

Tweet from Alek Sigley four days ago

Tongil’s website continues: “The mutual trust and respect we share with our partners on the ground in North Korea make all of our tours just that extra bit more special. Our connections with some of the world’s most respected scholars in Korean studies, who work with us as advisers and lecturers, allow us to bring greater educational depth to what we do.”

North Korea is a secretive dictatorship with a fearsome human rights record. American University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier, aged 21, was arrested there in 2016, allegedly for trying to “souvenir” a propaganda poster of the country’s dictator Kim Jong-un, apparently as a light-hearted prank. The poster stated (in Korean), “Let’s arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong-il’s patriotism!”

Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years hard labour in a prison camp for theft of a poster, and was  returned to the US in a coma the following year. He never recovered and he died soon after. Before letting Warmbier leave, North Korea issued a USD 2 million bill for the young student’s hospital care, insisting that a US official sign a pledge to pay it before letting the critically ill student fly home from Pyongyang in 2017.

Below: Recent tweet from Alek Sigley promoting a coming Tongil Tours trip

Sigley knew about Warmbier’s case but told the ABC: “I’ve never felt threatened and this whole year has been a period of rapprochement.”

DFAT advises Australians to “reconsider their need to travel” to North Korea, noting: “Foreign visitors have been subject to arbitrary arrest and long-term detention. Foreigners can be arrested, detained or expelled for activities that would not be considered crimes in Australia, including perceived disrespectful behaviour and unwarranted interaction with local nationals.”

Written by Peter Needham

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