Oceania

Australian Student Released by North Korea Denies Being a Spy

Alek Sigley had been studying at Kim Il Sung University before being detained on charges of espionage.

Australian Student Released by North Korea Denies Being a Spy
Credit: Wikimedia Commons / John Pavelka

An Australian student who was held in North Korea for a week and then deported denied being a spy on Tuesday and expressed sorrow that he won’t be able to return to finish his graduate studies at Kim Il Sung University.

North Korea said on Saturday that it detained Alek Sigley because he had spread anti-state propaganda and engaged in spying by providing photos and other materials to news organizations with critical views toward the North. Pyongyang said it deported Sigley last Thursday after he pleaded for forgiveness for his activities.

Sigley spoke briefly to reporters after being deported but didn’t say what had happened to him.

In a series of tweets Tuesday, Sigley answered some questions but again said little about his detention.

“The allegation that I am a spy is (pretty obviously) false,” he said. He said the only material he gave to the news organizations was what was published publicly.

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NK News also released a statement addressing the accusations. According to NK News, Sigley has published six articles with the website presenting “an apolitical and insightful view of life in Pyongyang which we published in a bid to show vignettes of ordinary daily life in the capital to our readers.”

“…[T]he idea that those columns, published transparently under his name between January and April 2019, are ‘anti-state’ in nature is a misrepresentation which we reject,” the statement continued.

Sigley had been among a few Western students studying in the North Korean capital and also operated a tour agency there.

He tweeted Tuesday that he wants to continue his academic research on North Korea, but has no plans to visit again. He said his tour agency has canceled all tours until further notice.

“The whole situation makes me very sad. I will now be unable to receive my master’s degree from Kim Il Sung University after completing more than half the course and achieving good results,” he tweeted. “I may never again walk the streets of Pyongyang, a city that holds a very special place in my heart.”

North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said Sigley had abused his status as a student by “combing” through Pyongyang and providing photos and other information to news sites such as NK News and other “anti-DPRK” media, an abbreviation of North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It said the North deported Sigley out of “humanitarian leniency.”

Sigley was released following intervention by Swedish diplomats. He traveled to Tokyo to reunite with his Japanese wife, whom he married in Pyongyang last year.

He tweeted Tuesday that he would not give any media interviews or hold a news conference about his experience.

Sigley’s ordeal had a much happier ending than that of American college student Otto Warmbier, who was convicted of attempting to steal a propaganda poster in North Korea and was imprisoned. Warmbier died shortly after being sent back home to the United States in a vegetative state in June 2017.

By The Associated Press with additional reporting by The Diplomat.