Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced to Parliament that Alek Sigley, 29, had been released following intervention from Swedish diplomats and had been taken to the Australian Embassy in Beijing.
Later Thursday, Sigley flew to Tokyo’s Haneda airport to reunite with his Japanese wife. He walked past reporters there without making any comments.
Earlier, at Beijing’s airport, he gave a peace sign and said “I’m OK, I’m OK, I’m good. I’m very good,” but did not respond to reporters’ questions about what had happened in Pyongyang.
His father, Gary Sigley, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Western Australia, said his son had been treated well in North Korea.
It was a much happier outcome than the case of American college student Otto Warmbier, who was imprisoned in North Korea and convicted of attempting to steal a propaganda poster. Warmbier died shortly after being sent back home to the U.S. in a vegetative state in June 2017.
Sigley’s friend and fellow student of North Korea, University of Technology Sydney academic Bronwen Dalton, said she had spoken to Sigley’s wife, who was thrilled by his release.
“We were jumping up and down and we love Sweden,” Dalton said.
“He’s a fine, young, emerging Asian scholar, he is very applied to his studies. I really doubted whether he did actually anything wrong by the regime,” Dalton added.
Swedish diplomats had raised concerns about Sigley with North Korean authorities in Pyongyang, where Australia does not have an embassy.
“Swedish authorities advised the Australian government that they met with senior officials from the DPRK yesterday and raised the issue of Alek’s disappearance on Australia’s behalf,” Morrison said, using the official acronym for North Korea.
“This outcome demonstrates the value of discrete behind-the-scenes work of officials in resolving complex and sensitive consular cases in close partnership with other governments,” Morrison said.
In an interview with Swedish public radio, Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom said the country’s special envoy to North Korea, Kent Harstedt, “raised the issue of this case at highest level” in North Korea and the release happened during his visit there.
North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said the Swedish delegation led by Harstedt headed back home on Thursday after a four-day visit. It said the Swedes visited a stamp museum and shoe factory during their stay in North Korea, but made no mention of Sigley.
The Pyongyang university student and tour guide had been out of contact with family and friends in Japan and Australia since Tuesday last week. He had been active on social media about his experiences in North Korea and had boasted about the extraordinary freedom he had been allowed as one of the few foreign students living in Pyongyang.
Morrison’s announcement was the first confirmation that he had been detained.
Morrison said he discussed Sigley’s disappearance with other world leaders attending the Group of 20 summit in Japan last week and accepted offers to find out what happened to him. Morrison dined with President Donald Trump in Osaka but declined to say with whom he discussed Sigley’s disappearance.
North Korea has been accused in the past of detaining Westerners and using them as political pawns to gain concessions.
Leonid Petrov, an Australian National University expert on North Korea and a friend of Sigley, last week speculated that Sigley had been “deliberately cut off from means of communications” temporarily because Trump was in the region.
Petrov said on Thursday that he had not been able to contact Sigley since he had been freed, but still suspected his disappearance was linked to Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Sunday.
“It was a time of sensitivity in North Korea after the visit of (Chinese President) Xi Jinping and before the visit by Donald Trump,” Petrov said.
“I expected this to happen a couple of days earlier, but it was a good thing to see the Swedish government delegation arrive on Monday just after the summit. It was the right time to be there,” Petrov added.