Alek Sigley was a 29-year-old postgraduate student studying in North Korea, pursuing a master’s degree in Korean literature. On or around June 26, after spending more than a year in Pyongyang as a foreign student, Sigley was detained by North Korean authorities. The state-run Korean Central News Agency said that Sigley was caught spying by “systemically collecting and offering data” to media outlets with critical views toward North Korea. The agency later said Sigley was deported from the country on July 4 out of “humanitarian leniency,” after he “admitted his spying acts” and “repeatedly asked for pardon.”
Sigley broke his silence on Twitter several days later, saying the allegation that he is a spy is “false”. And “I may never again walk the streets of Pyongyang, a city that holds a very special place in my heart.” While life in the capital for a foreign student is not representative of life for ordinary citizens across the country, Sigley’s experience does offer a rare glimpse into North Korea’s opaque society and some of the changes that may be underway in Pyongyang.
Sigley, who grew up in Perth, Australia, studied abroad in China in 2011, where he lived in a dormitory at Shanghai’s Fudan University and happened to be on the same floor as North Korean students. “I thought this would be really an interesting opportunity to just get to know some North Koreans as actual people.” Sigley made his first trip to North Korea in 2012 as a tourist, spending five nights in Pyongyang, where he met some people there in the local travel industry who inspired him a year later to start an Australian-based company that specializes in educational tourism to North Korea.
Enrolling in Kim Il Sung University as a foreign student some years later, Sigley said he had much more access to Pyongyang than tourists did and could explore most areas without a guide. Tourists, including diplomats and humanitarian workers, must be accompanied by guides to use the metro and other means of transportation. Locals and foreigners wishing to travel within the country need a permit issued by local authorities and proper identification, which are verified at numerous checkpoints within and between provinces.
Sigley said he dressed plainly and is half-Chinese, which allowed him to “blend in” better than some other foreigners. “But I do sometimes notice people looking at me,” he told ABC News. Read more