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.





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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North Korean Nuclear Program and the Continuing Korean War

7 12 2017

Nuclear Asia ANU CAP 2017My piece ‘North Korean Nuclear Program and the Continuing Korean War’ is included in the new compendium of articles, Nuclear Asia” (ANU CAP 2017)





Brisbane-based geologist Louis Schurmann linked to huge North Korea rare earths mining project

7 11 2014

Louis Schurmann(By Mark Willacy, ABC, 6 Aug 2014) A leading Asian human rights activist has urged the Federal Government to investigate a Queensland-based resources company and a prominent Australian geologist over mining deals with North Korea that he believes may breach United Nations sanctions.

One of the deals involves the mining of a potential deposit of 216 million tonnes of rare earths, which are minerals used in everyday items including smartphones, flatscreen televisions and computers, but also essential for sophisticated weapons such as guided missiles.

The deposit, discovered at Jongju, about 150 kilometres north-west of the North Korean capital Pyongyang, is reportedly one of the world’s largest.

It could also provide a significant boost to the rogue state’s economy.

Late last year, a British Virgin Islands-based private equity firm, SRE Minerals, signed a joint venture with the regime-run Korea Natural Resources Trading Corporation to develop the site for the next 25 years.

The project’s lead scientist and director of operators is Dr Louis Schurmann, an experienced Brisbane-based geologist and fellow of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy.

Tokyo-based Human Rights in Asia director Ken Kato has told the ABC that he wants the joint venture project investigated.

“Rare earths are an indispensable material for guided missiles,” he said.

“North Korea’s mining resources are a major source of revenue for its nuclear and missile programs.”

Activist who questioned deal labelled ‘doomsday prophet’ in email

UN Security Council resolution 2094, passed in response to the regime’s 2013 nuclear weapons test, bans the transfer of any financial or other assets, or resources “that could contribute to the DPRK’s [North Korea’s] nuclear or ballistic missile programs”.

The question remains whether this could in any way apply to rare earths mined in North Korea.

The ABC has obtained correspondence between Mr Kato and Dr Schurmann, in which the activist warns the geologist that the project could be in violation of resolution 2094.

The exploration geologist dismissed the concerns in a reply email.

“Have you ever thought that doomsday prophets like your [sic] cause most of the problems?? What we are doing is making a difference … a POSITIVE one … try it,” Dr Schurmann wrote.

Mr Kato has referred Dr Schurmann to the Sanctions Section of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, urging an investigation.

The Sanctions Section replied: “Australia takes its sanctions obligations … very seriously and we will provide due consideration to the matters you have raised.”

When Lateline asked the department whether Australians or Australian companies involved in the Jongju mining project were in breach of sanctions, it refused to comment, or to confirm if an investigation was underway.

Rare earths could ‘change the whole game’ for North Korea

North Korea expert Leonid Petrov, from the Australian National University, warned that if the rare earths deposit was as big as being touted, it would provide a huge boost to the country’s economy.

Dr Petrov said such an injection of hard currency into the impoverished and brutal regime would strengthen its chances of survival.

“If they really do have substantial amounts of rare earths in North Korea it can actually change the whole game of survival for North Korea,” he said.

“The regime does not need to reform [with such an injection].”

Mr Schurmann is not the only Australian link to the Jongju rare earths project.

Brisbane-based Salva Resources assessed the deposit for the proponents, and found it to be a considerable and economically viable prospect.

At the time of the company’s involvement, Salva Resources was owned by Brisbane mining executives Lachlan Broadfoot and Grant Moyle.

Last year, in a deal that media reports said had netted them millions of dollars, they sold the company to US engineering group HDR.

Lateline contacted the new company, HDR Salva, seeking comment about the Jongju assessment and an interview with Mr Broadfoot, who works at the merged company.

In a statement, HDR Salva said: “Salva Resources was contracted to do a geological review of historical data. The nature of this work was thus not relevant to your other comments.”

Those “other comments” relate to the ABC’s queries about UN sanctions against North Korea.

Under Security Council Resolution 1718, to which Australia is bound, it is “an offence to engage in conduct which assists, or results in, the sale, supply or transfer of specified goods on the luxury goods list to [North Korea]”.

Number 22 on the prohibited list is “precious metals”, an appellation sometimes given to rare earths.

It is unclear whether resolution 1718 applies to materials mined inside North Korea.

Gold and silver also appear on the list.

Lateline has discovered that Dr Schurmann’s mining interests in North Korea are not just confined to rare earth minerals.

Dr Schurmann is a director of Australian Stock Exchange-listed EHG Corporation, which last year announced it had acquired a sub-licence “to mine, process, extract and sell all minerals from the North Hwanghae province” in the closed communist state.

Those minerals would include gold, silver, lead and copper.

Dealing with North Korea ‘controversial business’

ANU’s Dr Petrov said dealing with North Korea was fraught with dangers.

“The money that goes to North Korea can be used by the regime to suppress its own people or to beef up its nuclear or missile capabilities. So doing business with North Korea is controversial business.

“It’s highly advised if you don’t want to end up on the list of sanctioned people and banned from doing business with other countries, you’d better check the list and check what is prohibited and what it allowed.”

Lateline emailed Dr Schurmann, sent him a Facebook message, called his home phone number, and visited his Brisbane home seeking comment. The program finally made contact. But the geologist told the ABC he has been advised by his lawyers not to comment at this stage.

As well as potential sanctions breaches, questions remain about who Dr Schurmann and his colleagues are dealing with in Pyongyang.

Human rights activist Mr Kato said most of Pyongyang’s biggest money making ventures were run by a secret unit of the regime called “Office 39”.

Mr Kato has told the ABC that while Office 39’s agents were sometimes involved in legitimate ventures, they were also responsible for counterfeiting, drug smuggling and weapons trafficking, he said.

“Office 39 controls most of the mining in North Korea. It’s like a big exclusive conglomerate for the Kim family,” said Mr Kato.

“The US Treasury Department says Office 39 provides capital to North Korea’s leaders and it is subject to sanctions in Australia, the US, and Europe.”

Do you know more? Email: investigations@abc.net.au





North Korea feeling victimised by the West.

1 07 2014

Seth Rogen_James Franco_The Interview (2SER FM107.3 June 31, 2014) North Korea is back in the headlines again, this time taking pot shots at our own Foreign Minister as well as Hollywood.

Following Julie Bishop’s interview on a radio station in America, North Korea released a statement threatening to “punish anyone who dares slander the dignity of its supreme leader”. This statement was followed by a promise to retaliate mercilessly if the Hollywood film ‘The interview’ which plots the killing of Kim Jong-un is released. Should North Korea feel threatened? And what is North Korea trying to achieve by releasing such statements?

Dr Leonid Petrov joined us on the line from Canberra to help us understand North Korea a little better.

http://www.2ser.com/component/k2/item/9659-north-korea-feeling-victimised-by-the-west





N Korea will ‘use Aussie as pawn’

22 02 2014

john_short(RICK WALLACE, THE AUSTRALIAN, 21 FEBRUARY 2014) An Australian missionary detained in North Korea faces the prospect of a stint in prison as the totalitarian state is likely to use his arrest as leverage in its quest to reopen an embassy in Canberra.

Academic Leonid Petrov, who has run tours to North Korea, says John Short will have to make a public confession to avoid a long spell in prison, but given his Christian stance against the regime, he may refuse, turning the issue into a diplomatic stand-off.

Dr Petrov, a Korea specialist at the Australian National University, said the fact the recent UN inquiry into North Korea’s human rights was led by an Australian (former High Court judge Michael Kirby) might also count against Mr Short in Pyongyang.

The 75-year-old missionary, who reportedly once served in the Australian military, was detained in his hotel lobby in Pyongyang at the end of a tour to North Korea organised by a Chinese travel agency.

It’s believed he was carrying a Bible and other Christian materials translated into Korean, all of which are banned in North Korea, where there is no religious freedom, even though some token churches are allowed to operate primarily for show.

Dr Petrov said the Australian government, which is relying on Sweden to handle consular matters in this case, would be hampered by the fact it doesn’t have an embassy or consulate in Pyongyang.

“Hundreds of Australians go to North Korea each year both for business and pleasure — sooner or later this was bound to happen,” he said. “It would much better in this case if we had an ambassador in Pyongyang.”

He said North Korea was likely to use Mr Short’s arrest to push for concessions from Australia, including the right to reopen its Canberra embassy, plans for which were scotched in the wake of a nuclear test last year.

North Korean authorities would try to force Mr Short into a videotaped “confession” — as they did with an elderly US ex-serviceman temporarily detained last year, Dr Petrov said.

“But I doubt that a missionary such as John Short is likely to succumb to pressure by a regime which he abhors,” he said.

So far, Pyongyang has said nothing about Mr Short’s detention, which was revealed after his wife, Karen, released a statement in Hong Kong, where they have lived for 50 years.





South Australian man John Short detained in North Korea, now facing 15 years in jail

20 02 2014

John Short(CRAIG COOK EXCLUSIVE THE ADVERTISER FEBRUARY 20, 2014) A South Australian man detained in North Korea for allegedly distributing religious material could be “very difficult to protect”, former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer says.

John Short, 75, a former member of the Unley and Elizabeth Global Hall Brethren, was arrested by the public security bureau of North Korea on Sunday and faces 15 years in jail under the harsh regime of Kim Jong-un.

He has since been questioned in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital and its largest city, about religious pamphlets printed in the Korean language and believed to be in his possession.

“It’s a fascist state and they would take a very dim view of anyone distributing information that doesn’t concur with the state ideology,” Mr Downer said. “A worse place to be caught doing something like that is unimaginable.

Mr Short, who was born in Barmera in the Riverland, lives in Hong Kong with his wife and three children, but is a regular visitor to Adelaide…

…A DFAT spokeswoman said the Government was aware of Mr Short’s arrest. “Australian has no diplomatic representation in North Korea and our capacity to deliver consular services there is extremely limited,’’ she said.

“Australian interests in North Korea are currently represented by the Swedish Embassy. We are in close contact with Swedish officials in Pyongyang to seek their assistance in confirming the well-being of Mr Short and to obtain more information.”

Mr Downer said he was believed the Australian government could work with Beijing to try to help. “Or the Swedes or the Brits could get involved but he could have a very difficult time of it,” he said. “It would depend on how he was looking to distribute material but it’s a very dangerous place to be doing something like that — we can only hope for the best.”

North Korea has several sanctioned churches in Pyongyang, but frowns on the distribution of Bibles and other religious materials by foreigners. Interaction between North Koreans and foreigners is strictly regulated.

Dr Leonid Petrov, who teaches North Korean political history at the Australian National University in Canberra, said Mr Short’s situation “could be complicated” by the release of a UN report on Monday detailing regime crimes against humanity.

Releasing the report, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, urged world powers to refer North Korea to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

“If he was found to be networking directly with North Koreans to spread religious material it could be very bad for him and them,” Dr Petrov said. “For locals, the whole family would be sent to the Gulag (forced labour camps) with little chance of ever being released unless they repent (their religious views). “For the foreigner, they could face a similar sentence to Kenneth Bae of 15 years with 16-hours-a-day hard labour.”

Mr Bae, a South Korean-born US citizen , was sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment in April , 2013 for attempting to topple the Korean regime. “They do treat white foreigners with some dignity compared to Korean born ‘foreigners’,” Dr Petrov added. “And foreigners are normally deported if they are distributing religious material. “But I would expect them to videotape a confession and then hold a press conference before they let him go.”

Mr Petrov said religions were sanctioned in the country, but people were too scared to participate and Koreans had no idea about Christianity. Christians suffered most in North Korea on the sole basis of their faith…

See the full version of this article here…