Asia Politics

North Korea released an Australian student accused of spying. Here's what you need to know

Key Points
  • Alek Sigley "returns to normal life" after supposedly admitting to "systematically" collecting information and providing photos to foreign news outlets.
  • This incident comes just days after U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un met in the Demilitarized Zone.
  • Pyongyang has recently been caught in a tense dance of criticisms and compliments with Washington as the Trump administration seeks a nuclear deal.
Australian student Alek Sigley smiles as he arrives at an airport in Tokyo on July 4, 2019, following his release.
Toshifumi Kitamura | AFP | Getty Images

North Korea on Thursday released and deported an Australian student after detaining him for several days for allegedly spying.

The autocratic country's state-controlled media said the Australian man, Alek Sigley, had admitted to "systematically" collecting information and providing photos to foreign news outlets, according to The New York Times.

The incident comes just days after U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's meeting in the Demilitarized Zone, which separates the North and South Korea, making Trump the first U.S. president to ever set foot in North Korea.

Kim's regime has recently been caught in a tense dance of criticisms and compliments with Washington as the Trump administration seeks a nuclear deal with Pyongyang. The sudden and secretive detainment of a citizen of a U.S.-allied nation may have been a North Korean attempt to send a signal to the White House, some experts said.

'Return to normal life'

Sigley was reportedly studying Korean literature at Kim Il-Sung University in Pyongyang while running a tourism business, helping foreign students enter the reclusive state. During his time in the capital he published six articles online, mostly about North Korean fashion, apps and restaurants but North Korea is said to have deemed them to be "anti-state."

According to a report by The Sydney Morning Herald, experts have dismissed the regime's claim that Sigley was a spy, and have instead noted that he apparently had "extraordinary freedom to travel and share his observations about the country online."

North Korean state-run news agency KCNA claimed, however, that the student acknowledged some wrongdoing.

"He honestly admitted his spying acts of systematically collecting and offering data about the domestic situation of the DPRK (North Korea) and repeatedly asked for pardon, apologizing for encroachment upon the sovereignty of the DPRK" KCNA said.

The agency added that the release of the student was in fact evidence of "humanitarian leniency" from the North Korean government.

Sigley has returned to Tokyo where he resides with his wife. According to The Guardian, Sigley said in a statement that he will not be holding any news conferences or doing any interviews.

"I just want everyone to know I am OK, and to thank them for their concern for my wellbeing and their support for my family over the past week," he said, the Guardian reported. "I'm very happy to be back with my wife, Yuka, and to have spoken with my family in Perth (Australia) to reassure them I'm well."

He added that he intends to "return to normal life" after publicly thanking everyone that worked on ensuring his safety and return.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Sigley have thanked Swedish diplomats for negotiating with Pyongyang for his release, according to The New York Times. Australia relies on the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang for any diplomatic talks with North Korea because Canberra does not have an embassy in North Korea's capital.

Detainment of an American student

This isn't the first time North Korea has imprisoned a foreign student visiting the country. American Otto Warmbier was detained for removing a propaganda sign from a Pyongyang hotel in 2016. The student's action was described as a "hostile act against the state," according to a KCNA report.

The difference between Warmbier and Sigley's situations is that the former was not immediately released even after extensive pressure from the international community. In fact, Warmbier fell into a coma the day he was sentenced for 15 years in prison with hard labor and died days after he was finally returned to the U.S. in an unconscious state.

Then-U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis described the incident as going "beyond any kind of understanding of law and order, of humanity, of responsibility towards any human being."

Pyongyang later claimed that Warmbier had contracted botulism and consequently died from the disease, but doctors at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center said they found no traces of active botulism.

A federal judge awarded the Warmbier family more than half a billion dollars in a wrongful death suit against the North Korean government last December. But so far, the regime has not engaged in settlement discussions.

Politics at play

Political observers who talked to the The Sydney Morning Herald said they believed Sigley's detention had more to do with the Trump-Kim talks on June 30 than any acts of espionage.

That is, Joseph Camilleri, a professor specializing in international relations at La Trobe University, told the newspaper that it was impossible the regime had not been fully aware of Sigley's activities since the moment he arrived. It was clear, he added, that Sigley had been detained not because the regime was concerned about the content of his writing but because of the broader diplomatic context, according to the Australian newspaper.

Detaining an American citizen while Washington-Pyongyang background talks were being conducted would have risked inflaming the situation too much, the professor told the Herald, adding that holding someone from a U.S.-allied nation would send a "signal that it wanted to see a significant outcome from the meeting."

Once the decision was made to arrest Sigley, the pariah nation "had to explain his absence for over a week," so it opted to accuse him of spying, Leonid Petrov of the Australian National University told The Sydney Morning Herald.

– CNBC's Natasha Turak and Christine Wang contributed to this report.