Fears are growing that North Korea has detained an Australian student living in Pyongyang, potentially complicating efforts among some Group of 20 nations to get Kim Jong Un's regime back to nuclear talks.
Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it's investigating reports that North Korean authorities have detained Alek Sigley, who runs tours for foreign students and submits social media posts about the country. His family said his detention hasn't been confirmed.
"He has not been in digital contact with friends and family since Tuesday morning Australian time, which is unusual with him," Sigley's family said in a statement on Thursday, according to a tweet from CNN reporter Paula Hancocks.
North Korea stoked ire in the US when college student Otto Warmbier died in 2017 following more than a year of captivity in the Asian country. While talks over the country's nuclear program have stalled since a failed summit in February between Kim and President Donald Trump, the two leaders have exchanged letters this month in a sign that negotiations may start again soon.
Sigley, a postgraduate student of Korean literature at Kim Il Sung University, founded Tongil Tours in Australia in 2013, according to the company's website. It says it's "committed to helping friends from all over the world experience North Korea travel that is safe, educational, and unforgettable." The word "tongil" means "unification" in Korean.
Sigley last posted a blog on the company's website on June 20, reviewing restaurants aimed at Pyongyang's middle-to-upper class. He last sent a tweet on June 24.
Tongil Tours says it was "the first tour operator to offer concentrated language study at a North Korean university in 2016," with the next such tour due to begin on Friday with an overnight train ride from Beijing to the North Korean capital.
"It's likely that a small action could have been considered a 'mistake' and he has been arrested as a measure of punishment," Choi Soon-mi, a professor on North Korean Studies at Ajou University's Institute for Unification near Seoul, said in a phone interview. "He is an Australian national, and not a US citizen -- so unlike Warmbier, it's unlikely that Sigley will be used by the North Korean regime" as a diplomatic tool, she said.
South Korea's foreign ministry released a statement Thursday saying it's "monitoring the situation, but there is nothing for our government to comment at this point."
Australian Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, who is in Osaka attending this weekend's summit along with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, told reporters the lack of a consulate in North Korea meant Australia's South Korean embassy has reached out to officials in the insular Asian nation. Morrison is due to have dinner Thursday night with Trump in Osaka.
"There is obviously some complications in providing consular assistance into North Korea," Cormann said. "We work through the Swedish government in North Korea and all of these steps are underway."