Alek Sigley, the Australian student detained in North Korea, surfaced in Beijing airport on Thursday and said he was in “very good” spirits after being released.

One of a handful of Westerners living and studying in North Korea, the 29-year-old disappeared without a trace around June 23, prompting a week of frantic speculation about his fate.

For days, Sigley’s family received no word about his whereabouts or wellbeing, stoking fears he may be the latest in a long line of foreigners to become entangled in North Korea’s police state.

Then, with little warning, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told lawmakers on Thursday that Sigley had “been released from detention in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” and that “he is safe and well.”

Sigley’s father Gary told the Australian media that the family was “extremely pleased he was safe and sound.”

His son’s detention came just days before a landmark meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, fuelling speculation that it may have been politically motivated.

Trump was intimately involved in the case of University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier, who was imprisoned during a tour of the authoritarian state in 2016.

Brain damage

Doctors said Warmbier suffered severe brain damage while in detention, fell into a coma and died days after arriving back in the United States. He was only 22 years old.

Still, Sigley was much more familiar with the country and spoke fluent Korean.

He ran tours to North Korea and a number of social media sites, which usually had a stream of apolitical content about everyday life in one of the world’s most secretive nations.

His blog posts focused on Pyongyang culture and included everything from the city’s dining scene to North Korean app reviews.

“He is always trying to demystify North Korea, unlike the typical Western media. He tries to understand the people there,” his 26-year-old Japanese wife Yuka Morinaga said.

Even so, the case was complicated by Australia’s lack of diplomatic representation in North Korea. Morrison thanked Sweden for its diplomatic help in securing Sigley’s release.

Earlier this week, Swedish special envoy Kent Harstedt had travelled to Pyongyang, where he raised the issue with North Korean authorities.

“I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to Swedish authorities for their invaluable assistance in securing Alek’s prompt release,” Morrison said, hailing it as a triumph of “behind the scenes” diplomacy.

AFP