SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea said Saturday that an Australian student who it detained for a week had spread anti-Pyongyang propaganda and engaged in spying by providing photos and other materials to news outlets with critical views toward the North.
Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA, said North Korea deported Alek Sigley on Thursday after he pleaded for forgiveness for his activities, which the agency said infringed on the country’s sovereignty.
North Korea has been accused in the past of detaining Westerners and using them as political pawns to gain concessions. KCNA provided few details about Sigley’s alleged spying activities other than that he, at the “instigation” of the media outlets, provided them with photos and data that he had collected.
North Korea, which closely monitors visitors and enforces a stringent information blockade on its citizens, is extremely sensitive about controlling the flow of information, which made Sigley, who had a lively presence on Twitter, an anomaly in the country.
Sigley arrived in Tokyo on Thursday after telling reporters he was in “very good” condition, but without saying what happened to him. His father, Gary Sigley, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Western Australia, said his son was treated well in North Korea.
Sigley had been studying at a Pyongyang university and guiding tours in the North Korean capital before disappearing from social media contact with family and friends.
KCNA said Sigley, who was caught “red-handed” by a “relevant institution” of the North on June 25, 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, a reference to the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The news agency said the North expelled Sigley out of “humanitarian leniency.”
“He honestly admitted his spying acts of systematically collecting and offering data about the domestic situation of the DPRK and repeatedly asked for pardon, apologizing for encroachment upon the sovereignty of the DPRK,” the agency said.
The North had not commented on Sigley before Saturday.
Sigley was released following intervention by Swedish diplomats. After his arrival in Beijing, he went to Tokyo to reunite with his Japanese wife, who he married in Pyongyang last year.
During his time in North Korea, Sigley often shared details about his life in Pyongyang through social media and the website of his travel agency, Tongil Tours, frequently challenging negative outside perceptions about the North and at times boasting about the extraordinary freedom he had as one of the few foreign students living there.
He also wrote op-eds and essays that appeared in the Western media, including NK News, although none of them seemed outwardly critical about the North’s government and political system.
In a statement published on its site, NK News CEO Chad O’Carroll said it would be a “misrepresentation” for the North to describe the articles Sigley wrote for the outlet as anti-state. He said NK News is an independent, specialist information website that aims to provide objective news and analysis about North Korea.
“Alek Sigley’s well-read columns presented 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,” O’Carroll said.
“The six articles Alek published represent the full extent of his work with us and the 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,” he said.
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 and imprisoned in North Korea. Warmbier died shortly after being sent back home to the U.S. in a vegetative state in June 2017.
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