Australian student Alek Sigley is seen in this undated photo obtained on June 27, 2019. AAP Image/Supplied by the Sigley family/via REUTERS
Australian student Alek Sigley is seen in this undated photo obtained on June 27, 2019. (AAP Image/Supplied by the Sigley family/via Reuters)

SYDNEY - Australian government officials are urgently seeking to confirm whether one of its citizens has been detained in North Korea. 

The family of Alek Sigley, an Australian student living in Pyongyang, say they have not heard from him for 48 hours, which is unusual.  Active on social media, he does not appear to have logged into his Twitter or Facebook accounts for several days.

It is not known why Sigley, an Asian scholar and fluent Korean speaker, might have been detained.  He is thought to be the only Australian living in North Korea

His family cannot confirm if he has been arrested, but Australian government officials say it is a “very serious set of circumstances.”

Originally from Perth, in Western Australia, the 29-year-old has been living in the North Korean capital for the past year while studying Korean literature at Kim Il Sung University.  He has also run a business running tours for Western tourists visiting the totalitarian and impoverished North Korean state.

“The North Koreans are incredibly sensitive to what we would regard as the smallest provocation," said Professor John McKay, a Korea expert from Deakin University. "For example, a few years ago there was a huge diplomatic incident between South Korea and North Korea when one of the South Korean workers in the special economic zone just over the border in North Korea was seen wrapping some garbage in a North Korean newspaper, and the newspaper had a picture of the North Korean leader on it.  The North Koreans reacted very, very sharply to that what they saw as a provocation.”

Several foreigners have previously been detained in North Korea, sometimes for illegal entry or for what the regime considers to be “hostile criminal acts against the state.”

In 2016, an American student Otto Warmbier was jailed in North Korea  for stealing a propaganda sign during a tour.  He spent 17 months behind bars, and later died days after he was returned to the United States in a coma.

Australia’s official travel advice to North Korea is that there is a "high level of risk" and potential travellers should reconsider their need to visit the country.

“Foreign visitors have been subject to arbitrary arrest and long-term detention,” it adds.