Australia says no word yet on student reported detained in North Korea


SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Friday Canberra has yet to establish the whereabouts of an Australian man missing in North Korea for several days.The family of Alek Sigley said on Thursday they had not heard from the 29-year-old university student in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, since Tuesday.

Australia’s foreign affairs department said on Thursday it was seeking urgent clarification about reports that an Australian had been detained in North Korea.

Australia has no diplomatic presence in North Korea and relies on third-party countries such as Sweden to act on its behalf. Morrison said Australia had been unable to establish what happened to Sigley despite the help of its allies.

“We don’t have any further information,” Morrison told Australia’s Channel 9 in Osaka, where he is attending the G20 summit of world leaders.

“It’s very concerning, I’m very concerned,” he said.

The treatment of foreign citizens, most usually from the United States, by the secretive North has long been a contentious issue. Some have been held as prisoners for years.

The death of American student Otto Warmbier in 2017 after he was detained in North Korea for 17 months sparked a long period of tension between Washington and Pyongyang, with the United States and North Korea even trading threats of war.

Warmbier was detained in 2016 and sentenced to 15 years of forced labour for trying to steal a propaganda poster in his hotel. He was returned to the United States in a coma and died soon after.

The United States imposed a ban on its citizens travelling to North Korea in September 2017, with a few exceptions for humanitarian workers or journalists.

Those tensions were relieved somewhat by an historic meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore a year ago to discuss the North’s nuclear and missiles programmes.

The problems remain unresolved, however, after a failed second summit in Hanoi this year.

Sigley has written several articles for international media organisations about his time in North Korea, which he describes in positive language.

He regularly updates his social media accounts but hasn’t made any posts since his disappearance. His Instagram page has since been removed, a family representative said.

“This has been done at the instigation of his family to limit unnecessary speculation and commentary on those channels,” a spokeswoman for Sigley’s family said in an emailed statement.

“Alek’s family and friends hope to hear from him soon,” she said.

Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Paul Tait

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