Love the North Korean Style: Alek Sigley’s Misfortune is a Coded Message

9 07 2019

South of the Border - shooting gallery

Last weekend the world was baffled by the statement of the (North) Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) which explained why Alek Sigley, the Australian student who had studied at the Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang, was detained, investigated and expelled. Nobody, including seasoned North Korea watchers, could make sense of this brief but eloquent statement that became viral among Western media even before it appeared on the KCNA official site.

The statement lambasted Mr Sigley for secretly conducting “anti-government propaganda via the Internet”. It said he was caught “red-handed committing anti-DPRK incitement through Internet” and questioned by the “relevant institution” on June 25. Investigation revealed that at the instigation of various ostensibly anti-DPRK media organisations Alek “several times handed over the data and photos he collected and analysed while combing Pyongyang”. He was able to explore the city because he held an identity card that labelled him as a foreign student”. The newsagency said that Mr Sigley “honestly admitted his spying acts”, “repeatedly asked for a pardon”, and apologised “for encroachment upon the sovereignty of the DPRK”. The DPRK government expelled him from the country on July 4, “by showing humanitarian leniency”.

It is true that, while studying in North Korea, Alek was a prolific user of various social media platforms and new means of communication. In 2019, he penned and published his writing on-line, describing the local restaurants, male and female fashion, mobile apps and popular hobbies. Perhaps, this was a marketing strategy to attract more attention to his business project, Tongil Tours, which he was running in addition to his work on the Master Thesis in Literature tentatively entitled “Love the North Korean Style”.

This would be innovative and interesting contribution to the North Korea Studies because no western scholar has systematically analysed how Love is understood in the most secluded and militaristic society on Earth. Alek must have been combing the streets and alleys of Pyongyang (which is romantically nicknamed in Korean a “willow capital”) in search of dating couples and happy families. In North Korea, marriage is permitted only if sanctioned by the state. To achieve that, every young man must serve 10 years in the military and every young woman must reach “revolutionary maturity” through studies or work. Until then Love can be expressed only towards their comrades, community or nation.

Creative research like this cannot be done is isolation and requires discussion and feedback. The use of the Internet in North Korea is permitted only to foreign visitors and residents, including international students, diplomats, accredited journalists and NGO staff. All of them have different visa types, which should not be confused. International students in North Korea are not supposed to report or exchange pictures and videos with foreign media outlets. In a country where every piece of foreign printed material must be meticulously declared at customs, uncensored access to the Internet poses a serious risk to national security. That is why ordinary North Koreans have no access to the World Wide Web or the telephone lines that can receive or make calls outside of the country. They use the Intranet and closed telephone and mobile networks monitored by the government.

Alek had the privilege of benefiting from the wonders of the 21st century while living in a country deeply stuck in the Cold War ideological conflict. DPRK national security law is fierce and intolerant to anyone who might breach it on purpose or accidentally. The grey area created by the usage of social media was bound to attract the attention of the almighty Ministry of State Security to Alek and his research. The two questions to consider here are “why did it happen now?” and “how is it that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was so fond of Alek and his work, could not even answer the question about his whereabouts?”

Perhaps the most plausible answer is that DPRK is not a monolith with single-hearted unity that speaks with one voice. There are many factions inside with very different views, and even if you are loved and in good graces of some parts of the DPRK government, the State Security apparatus is a coequal branch of government that rarely agrees with outward-looking people. The stability of the DPRK comes from this inertia that prevents any real change from happening. This also makes it very dangerous for naive foreigners who don’t get that there is no one-man rule or consolidated unity in what the government says, does, or thinks. One of the biggest misconceptions is that Kim Jong-un is the omnipotent autocrat who gets whatever he wants. The truth is much more complex: North Korea has its own “deep state”, just like any other nation.

For those who still believes that North Korea’s human rights record is problematic, they did not forget to remind us that Alek Sigley‘s release was an act of “humanitarian leniency”. People in the government wanted to show us that they have read Michael Kirby’s Report on Human Rights in North Korea and learnt their lesson.

Finally, we should not underestimate the Koreans’ penchant for symbolism in dates and numbers. Whatever was the reason for this strange security operation, Alek Sigley was arrested on the 25th June, the date when the Korean War started, and was liberated on the 4th July, when Americans were preparing to celebrate their national day. Perhaps, someone in the government wanted to do it in solidarity with the American people’s successful struggle against monarchy and colonialism.

Excerpts from this piece were used by the Sydney Morning Herald and The West Australian newspapers.

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Luck had nothing to do with Alek Sigley’s escape from North Korea

7 07 2019

Alek Sigley DPRK 1(Opinion by Leonid Petrov, The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 July 2019)

The last two weeks have been eventful in the contemporary story of North Korea. The first visit of China’s President Xi Jinping to Pyongyang was followed by the first visit to the Demilitarised Zone by US President Donald Trump. There he met North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Separated by a week, both events will potentially play a role in ending the Korean War, the oldest conflict of the Cold War era, which remains unfinished since the signing of the 1953 Armistice Agreement.

The optimistic glow of these events was tarnished by the ongoing anxiety about the Australian student, Alek Sigley, who had suddenly stopped communicating with his family and friends after staying in Pyongyang for more than a year. There was something symbolic in his disappearance from view on June 25, the day when the Korean War started 69 year ago. It was not only the Koreans, Chinese and Americans who fought in that war. Australia joined it too and lost more than 330 servicemen in Korea during the three years of conflict. The prospect of losing another Australian citizen, caught up in the inter-Korean and international geopolitics, was disturbing.

What happened to Sigley, who was suddenly released on Thursday morning and safely back in Japan by Thursday evening, remains unclear to date. He was not seen at his usual place of residence and did not respond to his mobile, Skype, Messenger, Twitter and other social media calls. The North Korean, or DPRK, government refused to acknowledge that he was arrested and the Swedish government’s special envoy to North Korea, Kent Rolf Magnus Harstedt, ambiguously commented on his disappearance: “There might be a more complicated explanation, for many reasons, for the timing and the way it happened.” In his first statement after leaving North Korea, Alek himself refused to give any explanations but sincerely thanked the Australian and Swedish government officials, and many other people “who worked hard in the background as well who worked hard behind the scenes”.

The incident is done and dusted. Alek is safe with his wife, his parents and friends are relieved as much as most Australians and everyone is praising the Swedes. Perhaps, the presidents of China, South Korea and the US should be thanked for their soft intervention too. Alek’s business partner, who ran the Tongil Tours with him until last week, is now more concerned about the future of their joint venture, but this issue is more personal than geopolitical. Everyone can go back to the normal life, including the North Koreans, who managed not to make a single public statement about this curious case.

What lessons, if any, can be drawn? Everything related to North Korea remains shrouded in mystery. The secrecy of North Korean authorities makes it difficult to visit, contact and deal with the country. The main reason for that is the continuing Korean War – the last ideological and military conflict of the 20th century inherited by this century. This unfinished business is the key to understanding North Korea.

Travelling to study or do business in a war zone is associated with risks. The usual freedoms of travel, information and consciousness are often curtailed or abrogated where the conflict is ongoing. In conflict zones, people get detained and interrogated before the decision is made what to do with them next. Some, like Sigley, are permitted to go home and might even continue doing business in North Korea, if they keep their lips tight. But others, like US student Otto Warmbier, fall victim to a system that considers itself at war with the rest of the world.

Alek has not escaped this potentially harmful situation unscathed because he is “lucky”. I know him. I met him when he was a student at the Australian National University where I worked. He is very intelligent and a gentleman. I predicted from day one, after he fell off the social media radars, that he would be fine and back home soon. He knows Korea well, he speaks the language, and understands the feelings of the Korean people divided by the Demilitarised Zone. His business reputation is impeccable and his intentions are sincere. He might be willing to go back to North Korea and resume his education travel business, perhaps after some re-branding.

The Australian government might be horrified by this scenario and the Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has already warned him not to return to North Korea. Will Sigley tempt fate once again? The answer is likely to echo special envoy Harstedt’s words: “It’s complicated.”

My advice to him would be to lie low for a while and consider the implications of what he has just been through. The situation could change quickly and soon. We may see the first quadrilateral summit – China, North Korea, South Korea and the United States – take place in coming months. A peace treaty is not out of the question. The opportunity to return under less complicated circumstances may arrive and he would be welcomed by the North Korean people.

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