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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