Alek Sigley case: 'We should not stop pursuing knowledge of North Korea'

An Australian student who has gone missing in North Korea should be admired for his work shining a light on the secretive country, writes Shin Takahashi.

OPINION: Alek Sigley is an Australian postgraduate student who is missing in North Korea. Media reports have suggested that Alek, who is doing a master's degree in Korean literature at Kim Il-Sung University in Pyongyang, has been detained by officials. At the time of writing, these reports have not been confirmed.

Editor's update: On July 4, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed Alek Sigley had been released from detention in North Korea and had safely left the country.

When hearing about Alek’s situation, many may wonder: why did he choose to study in North Korea in the first place?

When I first met Alek, he was still an undergraduate student at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, where I was conducting doctoral research at the time. He began his undergraduate program at ANU after spending time at Fudan University in Shanghai, where he became acquainted with students from North Korea and developed an interest in the country. Although we were at different stages of academic life, both of us were studying under the mentorship of Professor Tessa Morris-Suzuki, a renowned historian of modern East Asia. So, from time to time, I bumped into him on campus and at events.

Alek Sigley

Alek Sigley has been reported as missing in North Korea. Image: Twitter

One of the moments I remember vividly was when he told us that he had launched a North Korea tour agency called Tong-il Tour. The word means “unification” in Korean and when used in local contexts, whether in the North or the South, it most often means the political unification of the Korean Peninsula. So, when I first heard the name of his tour agency, I was impressed by his boldness. At the same time, I was concerned because the word is still very politically charged, and using it in public is a sensitive issue in Korea. I wondered if he understood the potential risks this name might cause in the future.

But in our East Asian community at ANU, Alek’s project was not “unbelievable”. Rather, it was a project that could be seen as an extension of our daily academic and social activities. On campus, we took regularly courses, and attended seminars or organised reading groups on the history, literature, and politics of the Korean Peninsula. These programmes were often coordinated by scholars, or by keen students. Among them, there were quite a few who travelled to North Korea or interviewed and worked with people coming from North Korea in China and Japan and even in Australia. Alek was one of the students who were in this loop.

Given the recent success of South Korea’s heavy and IT industries – not to mention K-pop - in the global market, the growing interest among university students in “Korea” is perhaps unsurprising. This rise in interest in South Korea has resulted in an increase in the number of enrolments in Korean Studies programmes in many parts of the world over the last two decades. In this context, as students become captivated by Korean culture and society, it is not uncommon for them to consider one day: Which “Korea” do I speak of?

In places such as ANU where Korean Studies is offered as a separate education programme, North Korea is a topic of everyday conversation among students and academics, both inside and outside of the lecture halls. For us, regardless of one’s political viewpoint, one common issue we unanimously agreed on was: “As East Asia scholars, we cannot ignore North Korea”.

Most scholars try to identify the historical and cultural significance of local life by spending a significant amount of time in the field. North Korea, which one researcher has described as “thirsting for its meaning”, is without a doubt one of the most urgent places to examine.

There has been a recent surge in the number of research publications on the country but there is still much we do not know about life in North Korea. In this context, Alek’s approach - trying to communicate to the outside world a reality of life inside the country through his academic and media work - is much needed. However, his disappearance reminds us of the precariousness of life inside North Korea. This kind of incident may discourage people from engaging with North Korean studies and dismissing North Korea as “the other”. 

But in this period in which the economic, political and cultural relationships between countries in Asia and the Pacific are more deeply connected than ever, we should not stop pursuing knowledge of North Korea. Alek’s works have made an important contribution to this end.

Shin Takahashi is a lecturer in Japanese Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. Views expressed in this article are personal to the author.

 - Asia Media Centre