SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s foreign affairs department said on Thursday it was seeking urgent clarification of media reports that an Australian man who was reported missing by friends had been detained in North Korea.
The department did not identify the man because of privacy concerns but Australian and South Korean media identified him as Alek Sigley, a 29-year-old university student in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.
“The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is providing consular assistance … to the family of an Australian man who has been reported as being detained in North Korea,” a spokesman said in a statement.
“The Department is urgently seeking clarification,” he said.
A source familiar with the situation said the man had been reported missing by friends.
The treatment of foreign citizens, most usually from the United States, by the secretive North has been a contentious issue over the years. Some have been held as prisoners for extended periods.
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 labor 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 traveling 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 programs.
The problems remain unresolved, however, after a failed second summit in Hanoi this year.
Australia, a staunch ally of the United States, does not have a diplomatic presence in North Korea and relies on third-party countries such as Sweden to act on its behalf.
“We are making urgent checks. We don’t know much at this stage,” the source said.
Sigley said in a blog post earlier this year he is a postgraduate student at Kim Il Sung University and the founder of a travel company that offers tours to North Korea.
He regularly updates his social media accounts but has not posted anything on either Twitter or Instagram for several days.
The incident will likely dominate the agenda of Prime Minister Scott Morrison when he travels to Japan for the G20 summit from Friday. Morrison is expected to meet Trump during the trip to discuss, among other things, North Korea.
Reporting by Paulina Duran and Colin Packham; Editing by Paul Tait