- - Thursday, June 27, 2019

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Alek Sigley is that oddest of ducks, a fan of the misery of life in North Korea. Mr. Sigley, a 29-year-old Australian from Perth, is one of the few Westerners who makes his home in the totalitarian state. He is a graduate student at Kim Il-sung University. Mr. Sigley says he has long felt a fascination with socialism. He may be the only Australian resident of North Korea.

Unlike actual North Koreans, whose connection with the greater world is strictly controlled, Mr. Sigley appears to have, or had, unusual access to the Internet. He has posted often to his Twitter feed, sharing photographs of his daily life in Pyongyang. He boasts of having significant freedom of movement. Mr. Sigley not long ago said he is “free to wander around the city, without anyone accompanying me. Interaction with locals can be limited at times, but I can shop and dine almost anywhere I want.”

He was even able to marry in the North Korean capital. He wants to “make sense of the human side of this little understood country.” To that end, Mr. Sigley founded a tour company, Tongil Tour, that takes foreigners into the country for propaganda tours and language programs. He presents Pyongyang to the world as a benign and genial city.

Mr. Sigley has been a boon to the North Korean dictatorship. He “normalizes” its barbarism through his Twitter feed, and attracts foreign currency into the country with his tours. He is as close to a friend that North Korea has.

But North Korea is a risk, sometimes a mortal risk, for friends and visitors. Mr. Sigley has been arrested, and nobody outside the country knows why or where he is. The Australian, the national newspaper, reported June 27 the Australian government is trying to confirm the news of his detention. His family, which has had no contact with him for days, says his social media sites have gone uncharacteristically dark.



If Mr. Sigley has indeed been arrested, it would not be the first time that North Korea has mistreated visiting foreigners. Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia junior from Ohio, was detained for taking a propaganda poster from his hotel, tried, sentenced to a long prison term, hideously tortured and returned from North Korea in a coma from which he never awoke.

Mr. Warmbier was not the first to be arrested. Kenneth Bae of Washington state was held in a North Korean labor camp for 735 days for unspecified “religious activities.” Praying and singing hymns in public is risky indeed in the peoples’ republic. Merrill Newman, an elderly Korean War veteran from California, was detained merely for speaking about his wartime service. Jeffrey Fowle of Ohio was jailed for six months for taking a Bible into the country. Such foreigners are often held for ransom, used to extract concessions from their nations in the West. The Trump administration restricts travel to North Korea. The Dominican Republic, which has its own problems, is s safer tourist destination.

President Trump will visit Seoul soon, and there are rumors that a third summit between the president and Kim Jong-un is being considered. Korea-watchers say Mr. Sigley’s evident detention will complicate the on-again off-again denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang. If something positive comes of Mr. Sigley’s arrest, it will be a reminder of the hideous nature of the North Korean regime. Negotiations are all well and good, but it’s important to remember who the people you’re negotiating with actually are.

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