North Korea reportedly detains Australian student and tour operator Alek Sigley

/ CBS/AP

Canberra, Australia — The Australian government said Thursday it was "urgently seeking clarification" on reports that an Australian had been detained in North Korea, which the attorney-general described as a "matter of the utmost seriousness."

The family of Alek Sigley said they had no confirmation that the 29-year-old Pyongyang university student had been detained, as reported by some South Korean news outlets.

Australian student Alek Sigley is seen in an undated photo provided by his family on June 27, 2019. Sigley family/REUTERS

"Alek has not been in digital contact with friends and family since Tuesday morning Australian time, which is unusual for him," a family statement said.

North Korea More

More in North Korea

"Alek's family hope to re-establish contact with him soon," it added.

CBS News' Australian partner Network Ten reports Sigley has been studying for a master's degree in Korean literature in Pyongyang, where he married his Japanese wife last year. The Australian also owns and runs a tour company in the North Korean capital.

Another North Korea tour operator told CBS News on Thursday

that Sigley owned and operated a company called Tongil Tours, possibly alone. Emails sent to Tongil Tours by CBS News on Thursday received an automated reply.

Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it was providing consular assistance to the family.

"The department is urgently seeking clarification. Owing to our privacy obligations, we will not provide further comment," a department statement said.

Australia does not have an embassy in North Korea. Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, who is also based in Perth, said Australia's embassy in South Korea "has reached out to relevant officials in North Korea."

"There is obviously some complications in providing consular assistance into North Korea," Cormann told reporters in Japan. "We work through the Swedish government in North Korea and all of these steps are underway."

A regular in Pyongyang

Sigley's family described him as an Asian scholar and traveler who had visited, studied and lived in several countries. He speaks Korean and Mandarin fluently as well as some Japanese, the family said.

He has traveled to North Korea several times since 2014, the statement said.

Network Ten said Sigley claimed in a recent article to be "free to wander around the city, without anyone accompanying me," suggesting he had "nearly unprecedented access" in a country where foreigners are generally closely monitored and controlled by the totalitarian government.

Sigley, a frequent user of his Twitter page to tout news from Pyongyang and tours he's offering, last posted to the account on Monday.

You can visit the Kim Il Sung University campus on a tour to North Korea with @TongilTours. Our next tour, led by me: https://t.co/gSgCN3BEw1

— Alek Sigley (@AlekSigley) June 23, 2019

Australian professor Leonid Petrov told Network Ten that he has maintained regular contact with Sigley via social media since his former pupil moved to North Korea, and that while the account he used still appeared to be active on Thursday, he had no received any reply from Sigley himself.

"The account is active," Petrov told Network Ten. "I don't know, maybe the (Australian) federal police are using, (looking) into this and checking his communication, but somebody is using this."

Sigley told Australian Broadcasting Corp. two years ago that he wanted to break down negative stereotypes about the country.

"If we thought it was unsafe, we would stop doing these tours," Sigley said. "We wouldn't be able to bear the moral and legal responsibility of bringing people to North Korea if it was dangerous."

Official media in North Korea haven't mentioned the reported arrest.

Schools and universities are currently closed for vacation in North Korea, and friends told Network Ten that Sigley was preparing to fly out of the country, making it possible that the student had been detained at the airport in Pyongyang, as foreigners have in the past.

The so-called Hermit Kingdom has a well-documented history of using foreign civilians as political pawns.

Prisoner pawns

In 2016 North Korea imprisoned American student Otto Warmbier for allegedly pulling down a state propaganda poster. He was detained for more than a year, suffered serve brain damage for reasons which remain unclear, and then died just days after his repatriation to the United States.

As the country pursued diplomacy with the United States last year, it released three American detainees in what the nation's propaganda described as a gesture of goodwill.

Americans freed from North Korea taking it "one day at a time"

The last Australian detained in North Korea was Christian missionary John Short, who was deported in 2014 after a 13-day interrogation.

Australia advises people to reconsider their need to travel to North Korea due to how its laws apply to foreigners and says foreign visitors have been subject to arbitrary arrests and long-term detentions.

First published on June 27, 2019 / 6:44 AM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

alek-sigley-north-korea.jpg

Everything to know about the first Democratic debate

The first DNC debates for the 2020 election season are Wednesday and Thursday

26M ago

Ex-USC gynecologist had gun when arrested on sex assault charges

16 cases cited in first criminal counts vs. Dr. George Tyndall, alleged abuser of hundreds; USC has made $215 million settlement offer to his accusers

1H ago

American woman killed by sharks while snorkelling in Bahamas

Family identifies victim as 21-year-old Jordan Lindsey of Torrance, California, "the most beautiful, gentle soul"

2H ago

Asylum officers ask court to block "Remain in Mexico" policy

In an extraordinary filing, the largest union of asylum officers said the policy they've been tasked with overseeing violates U.S. and international law

3H ago

Spanish-speaking candidates stand out at Democratic debate

Cory Booker's stunned look when Beto O'Rourke started speaking Spanish was one of the viral moments from the first night of the debate

4H ago

Everything to know about the first Democratic debate

The first DNC debates for the 2020 election season are Wednesday and Thursday

26M ago

Conditions apparently better at once squalid detention center

Journalists allowed to tour Clint, Texas facility skewered by lawyers who visited only days ago

2H ago

Asylum officers ask court to block "Remain in Mexico" policy

In an extraordinary filing, the largest union of asylum officers said the policy they've been tasked with overseeing violates U.S. and international law

3H ago

Spanish-speaking candidates stand out at Democratic debate

Cory Booker's stunned look when Beto O'Rourke started speaking Spanish was one of the viral moments from the first night of the debate

4H ago

Fact check: The first Democratic primary debate

The 2020 Democratic presidential debates kick off in Miami over two nights — Wednesday is the first. Here are

updated 24M ago

Fears for Australian student reportedly detained in North Korea

Given the North's history of locking up foreigners on petty charges to use as political pawns, Alek Sigley's family and friends are concerned

7M ago

American woman killed by sharks while snorkelling in Bahamas

Family identifies victim as 21-year-old Jordan Lindsey of Torrance, California, "the most beautiful, gentle soul"

2H ago

Asylum officers ask court to block "Remain in Mexico" policy

In an extraordinary filing, the largest union of asylum officers said the policy they've been tasked with overseeing violates U.S. and international law

3H ago

Lawyers seek access to Border Patrol facilities

One doctor said conditions "could be compared to torture"

6H ago

Trump and lawmakers react to tragic photo of migrants

Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his almost 2-year-old daughter Valeria are seen face down in south Texas' Rio Grande

8H ago

Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul tease "Breaking Bad" reunion

The literal partners in crime have fans freaking out about a potential movie after they posted a cryptic image online Wednesday

11H ago

"48 Hours'" Erin Moriarty honored with Lifetime Achievement Award

"Erin Moriarty has been producing impactful, life changing stories for CBS News for three decades," said CBS News president Susan Zirinsky

12H ago

New on Netflix, Hulu and Amazon

Shows and movies you'll want to stream soon

Jun 24 33 photos

The Black Keys open up about why they haven't toured in years

Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach open up about their time apart and the pressures of touring

13H ago

Maisie Williams will star as another badass character in next TV role

Williams has many faces — we look forward to seeing this one

14H ago

New documents reveal more overcollection by NSA phone data program

The previously undisclosed glitch surfaced in memos obtained through an ACLU Freedom of Information Act lawsuit

16H ago

Teens talk bullying and the pressures of Instagram

"CBS This Morning" co-host Gayle King spoke to five kids ranging in age from 12 to 18 years old who are all daily Instagram users

18H ago

Florida city to pay hackers big ransom for seized computer systems

Lake City to fork out $460,000 to retake email and other servers in 2nd ransomware payout by a Florida city in a week

Jun 26

Instagram head reflects on foreign interference

"We are trying to understand the details of the risks," Adam Mosseri said

Jun 25

Amazon's Prime Day, starting July 15, is now 48 hours long

Retailer is banking more shoppers will pony up $119 for an annual Prime membership to take part in an expanded sale

Jun 25

Zimbabwe wants to sell its wild elephants

Zimbabwe's tourism minister says they're selling them to Angola and any other country "who wants our wildlife"

14H ago

Video captures giant squid in the U.S. for the first time ever

NOAA said the squid was about 10-12 feet and it appeared to wrap its tentacles around an underwater camera

Jun 24

Almanac: Sex researcher Alfred Kinsey

The biologist who achieved fame with a pair of best-selling books about male and female sexual behavior was born on June 23. 1894

Jun 23

Seeing red: Mankind gets closer to Mars

NASA and SpaceX are both readying unmanned missions to the Red Planet, with the goal of putting human-filled boots on the ground

Jun 23

Apollo 11 50th anniversary: 50 photos from the moon

50 photos to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing

Jun 21 50 photos

Man with dementia remembers song he wrote decades ago

His son now has plans to record the song as a single — with the proceeds going toward the Alzheimer's Society

14H ago

San Francisco bans e-cigs: Is it legal? Is it safe?

San Francisco will be the first U.S. city to ban sales of the product

18H ago

San Francisco bans e-cigarette sales

Vaping sales ban pits city against one of its best-known hometown startups, the e-cigarette maker Juul Labs Inc.

Jun 25

Nursing home costs rising even faster than health care

For many older Americans, affording long-term care can be financially ruinous, researchers say

Jun 25

AbbVie to buy Botox maker Allergan for $63 billion

The acquisition aims to diversify AbbVie beyond its top-selling drug Humira, which will soon lose patent protection

Jun 25

Private prisons get slammed ahead of Democratic debates

Elizabeth Warren and other Democratic candidates want to end federal use of private prison companies

11H ago

As Democrats debate, facts about the economy, taxes and more

How's the economy really doing? Who benefits from GOP tax cuts? Is income inequality a problem? Here are the facts

8H ago

FAA finds new potential risk in Boeing 737 Max planes

Test pilots discovered a computer issue that could slow down a pilot's ability to quickly respond to a scenario like the ones seen in two deadly crashes

11H ago

"Rainbow retail" big during Pride Month, but what about rest of year?

Businesses say their rainbow-themed Pride efforts are meant to do good — and, yes, win over a new crop of consumers

8H ago

NRA shuts down NRATV, and top lobbyist Chris Cox resigns

Turmoil within the gun rights organization continues as an exec exits and it blames its ad agency for NRATV's demise

13H ago

Ex-USC gynecologist had gun when arrested on sex assault charges

16 cases cited in first criminal counts vs. Dr. George Tyndall, alleged abuser of hundreds; USC has made $215 million settlement offer to his accusers

1H ago

Report: NYPD mishandling complaints of police bias

Investigators with the New York City Police Department's Internal Affairs have not substantiated any of the 2,495 complaints of biased policing it's received since it began tracking the allegations in 2014, according to a scathing report issued by a city watchdog Wednesday. CBSN New York's Lisa Rozner reports.

8H ago 02:51

NYPD reviewed 2,000 complaints of police bias. It substantiated none.

NYPD fielded 2,495 complaints of biased policing since 2014

8H ago

Ford dealership shooting suspect ID'd as recently fired employee

Victims have been identified as Brian Light, 59, and Xavier Souto, 38, who were supervisors of suspect Steven Leet

10H ago

How to watch "NCIS: The Cases They Can't Forget

The series, hosted by Rocky Carroll, looks at some of the biggest cases handled by the real-life agents of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service

13H ago

Space

SpaceX launches Falcon Heavy rocket

SpaceX launched a Falcon Heavy rocket for its third flight, carrying 24 small science and technology satellites into multiple orbits for the Pentagon, NASA and a variety of other agencies. CBS News space consultant Bill Harwood joins "CBSN AM" to explain the goals of the complex mission and what happened.

Jun 25 08:08

3 astronauts complete "once-in-a-lifetime ride" home after 204-day stay in orbit

A Russian cosmonaut, a Canadian and a NASA astronaut return to Earth late Monday after station stay

Jun 25

SpaceX Falcon Heavy makes dramatic night launch

SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket carrying 24 satellites heads into orbit; also on board: portions of the cremated remains of 152 space enthusiasts

Jun 25

SpaceX faces difficult rocket launch

SpaceX is expected to launch a Falcon Heavy rocket carrying 24 satellites for the Defense Department and the ashes of 100 people, including those of actor James Doohan, who played "Scotty" on "Star Trek." Founder Elon Musk called the launch the company's most difficult to date. Vladimir Duthiers and Anne-Marie Green have more.

Jun 24 00:39

NASA discovery could signal life on Mars

NASA scientists say its Curiosity rover discovered high amounts of methane gas on Mars. On Earth, the gas is typically produced by living things. CBS News space consultant Bill Harwood joins CBSN to discuss if this observation could mean there's life on Mars.

Jun 23 05:16

New on Netflix, Hulu and Amazon

Shows and movies you'll want to stream soon

Jun 24 33 photos

Evidence photos from the police shooting of Danroy "DJ" Henry Jr.

Evidence from the scene of Pace University student DJ Henry’s fatal encounter with Officer Aaron Hess in Mount Pleasant, N.Y.

Jun 22 19 photos

Apollo 11 50th anniversary: 50 photos from the moon

50 photos to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing

Jun 21 50 photos

Deadliest highway in every state

These are the highways with the highest rate of fatal crashes

Jun 20 50 photos

Mount Everest deaths: Inside a deadly climbing season

A look at a treacherous 2019 climbing season on the world's highest peak

Jun 20 39 photos

Popular

Cory Booker post-debate interview

CBSN political reporter Caitlin Huey-Burns caught up with U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, who said there were a number of moments where he got to "show voters who I am."

1H ago 03:03

Amy Klobuchar post-debate interview

CBS News political correspondent Ed O'Keefe caught up with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar after the debate. Klobuchar said she wanted to show that in the end, the Democratic candidate will be running against President Trump and she wanted to highlight her differences with the president. BSN's Elaine Quijano, CBSN political contributor Molly Hooper, CBSN political contributor and Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright, Democratic strategist at 270 Strategies Hari Sevugan and CBSN political contributor and Republican strategist Leslie Sanchez discuss Klobuchar's standout moments and her challenges.

1H ago 07:42

Gabbard on foreign policy

CBSN political reporter Caitlin Huey-Burns caught up with U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who says foreign policy is not enough of a focus for her fellow 2020 Democratic candidates. CBSN's Elaine Quijano, CBSN political contributor Molly Hooper, CBSN political contributor and Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright, Democratic strategist at 270 Strategies Hari Sevugan and CBSN political contributor and Republican strategist Leslie Sanchez discuss Gabbard's out-of-the-mainstream views and background.

1H ago 05:32

N.H. voters on first debate night

At a watch party in West Ossipee, New Hampshire, voters were impressed by Cory Booker and Julián Castro's performance on the first Democratic debate night. Nicole Sganga reports on the takeaways — and how voters are reacting to the overwhelming amount of candidates.

6H ago 02:17

Castro and O'Rourke spar over immigration policy

The two Texans on the debate stage, former Obama Housing Secretary Julián Castro and former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, had a heated debate about part of the immigration law. CBSN political reporter Caitlin Huey-Burns breaks down the significance of the debate.

6H ago 04:03

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here