Prime minister Scott Morrison says he’s been unable to obtain any new information about the “troubling” disappearance of Australian man Alek Sigley in North Korea.
Family and friends of Sigley, who has been living and studying in Pyongyang, have not been able to speak to the 29-year-old from Perth since Tuesday, which they say is “unusual”.
“He remains out of digital contact with friends and family, and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade continues to seek clarification as to his whereabouts and welfare,” the family said in a statement on Friday.
Sigley had been studying a master’s degree in Korean literature at Kim Il Sung University and runs a tour company that organises trips for foreign students. Fluent in both Korean and Mandarin, he was an active social media user and his sudden silence has sparked fears about the 29-year-old’s welfare.
As Dfat scrambles to understand what may have happened, the former Australian foreign minister Bob Carr told Guardian Australia locating Sigley would require some “deft diplomacy”.
Carr said Australia had to work with “our friends and partners on this case with the objective of getting Alek out of North Korea as soon as possible.
“Secondly, we need to send a message to North Korea that we’re very focused on his wellbeing.”
On Friday Morrison said he’d been unable to confirm whether Sigley has been detained by the repressive regime. “It is troubling and concerning to me and I’m sure his family as well,” Morrison told the ABC from the G20 summit in Japan.
“The expressions of support and assistance that have come from other nations I have met with here has been very welcome.
“We will continue to focus sharply on that and seek to clarify what exactly has occurred and then take steps from there.” “Some media have speculated about the shuttering of Alek’s social media accounts,” the statement read.
“This has been done at the instigation of his family to limit unnecessary speculation and commentary on those channels.
“Alek’s family and friends hope to hear from him soon.”
While there has been no official confirmation of his disappearance, his wife, Yuka Morinaga, who lives in Tokyo, told the Australian newspaper she was “very concerned” for her husband’s safety.
She said she usually speaks to him on Whatsapp every day but their last contact was on Monday night.
“I didn’t notice anything weird,” she said. “We don’t know what’s happened. We don’t even know if he’s been detained or not.”
“He is always trying to demystify North Korea, unlike typical Western media. He tries to understand people there.”
Another friend, the Australian National University North Korea expert Leonid Petrov, told Guardian Australia he had last spoken to Sigley briefly on Tuesday.
“His Skype is active, I can see the green light, but he doesn’t respond to my messages,” he told Guardian Australia.
Australia does not have an embassy in North Korea, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Dfat) is relying on representations from other countries, including Sweden and the UK, to make representations on their behalf in Pyongyang.
Carr said the effectiveness of Australia’s representations on Sigley’s behalf will depend on how well our allies can engage with the North Korean regime.
“They are imponderables, they really are imponderables from this distance. It’s really going to require a bit of deft diplomacy on Dfat’s part,” he said.
“We’re relying on using our relationships with countries that in turn have got some relationship with North Korea, and none of us in Australia can really speculate knowingly about which of our partners might be able to deliver the best result and how effective their representations may be.”