Analyst: Student's expulsion from North Korea reveals regime's layers

By Elizabeth Shim
Analyst: Student's expulsion from North Korea reveals regime's layers
Australian Alek Sigley arrives at Haneda International airport in Tokyo on Thursday. Photo by Franck Robichon/EPA-EFE

July 10 (UPI) -- The arrest and deportation of an Australian graduate student from North Korea took place inside a regime defined by complex layers of domestic politics, says an Australia-based analyst acquainted with Alek Sigley.

Leonid Petrov, a researcher at Australian National University's College of Asia and the Pacific, told UPI different arms of North Korean government are not in agreement when it comes to the few foreign residents in the country.


The status quo could help explain why Sigley was ultimately expelled from the country that has since accused him of "spying acts of systematically collecting information."

"North Korea is not a monolith with single-hearted unity that speaks with one voice. There are many factions with very different views," Petrov said by email. "Even if you are loved and in good graces of some parts of the government, the State Security apparatus is a coequal branch that rarely agrees with outward-looking people."


Sigley, 29, did not respond to request for interviews from UPI by Wednesday. He has declined all media requests since his release last week.

Sigley's decision to say little about the experience contrasts with his relative openness on social media about his life in North Korea, where he said he made friends and linked up with business partners.

On Twitter, the Australian student often showed pictures of meals at North Korean restaurants, or highlighted changing tastes in fashion. In March, he published a lengthy article in The Guardian about everyday life in Pyongyang, where he was studying Korean literature at Kim Il Sung University.

As a long-term foreign resident in North Korea, Sigley was planning trips to the country with his company, Tongil Tours. His essays indicate he was becoming more comfortable opening up about the regime.

"We've even spotted young people who've clearly had plastic surgery," he wrote in March.

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Markus Bell, a lecturer in Korean and Japanese studies at the University of Sheffield in Britain, said he mentored Sigley at Australian National University before Sigley began living in Pyongyang, meeting and chatting with North Koreans in the city.


"I appreciated what Alek was trying to do," Bell tells UPI. "I'm only sorry that it ended as it did.

"I still believe that visiting North Korea offers opportunities for unscripted moments of mutual understanding that will, hopefully, minimize chances for conflict."

Petrov, who has visited North Korea in recent years, said Sigley's relatively benign activities might have eventually caught the attention of authorities.

"The usage of the Internet in North Korea is permitted only to foreign visitors and residents, including international students," Petrov said. "But all of them have different visa types; international students in North Korea are not supposed to report or exchange pictures and videos with foreign media outlets."

Sigley's digital diplomacy may have been an easy target for a reclusive state where authorities believe uncensored access to the Internet poses a grave risk to national security, Petrov added.

"That is why ordinary North Koreans have no access to the World Wide Web or telephone lines that can receive or make calls outside of the country," he said.

Since being released from North Korea, Sigley has said the spying allegations are "pretty obviously" false.


In Australia, Sigley's arrest may have stoked fear about a country that is viewed as "weird, abnormal and anachronistic," says Jeffrey Robertson, an Australian academic who teaches at Yonsei University in South Korea.

"Australia's interest is influenced by its relationship with close partners, the United States and South Korea, and its role in the United Nations Command," Robertson said. "The government position, much like in the United States, is framed through a security lens."

The countries have diplomatic relations but no resident embassies -- which likely prompted Canberra to use all diplomatic channels available to secure Sigley's release, said Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. diplomat.

"One thing we can definitely say is that Sweden played a critical role as Australia's protecting power in Pyongyang," Oba said.

"It also seems highly likely that Australia sought to press for Sigley's release through every diplomatic avenue it had available," he added. "I have little doubt Canberra raised this case with the United States, South Korea, and asked for their help."

On Tuesday, Sigley said he is well both "mentally and physically."

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