Alek Sigley
Alek Sigley a 29-year-old Australian after being released from detention in North Korea. (Image: AP/Kyodo)

After nearly a week in North Korean detention, 29-year-old Australian Alek Sigley found himself a free man. He flew first to Beijing and onward to his wife in Japan, escorted by a Swedish delegation. Beyond saying he was “fine”, Sigley said nothing of his time in detention. But how did he get out?

Sigley, who had been living and studying in the covert city of Pyongyang in North Korea, garnered worldwide attention when he disappeared prompting Swedish authorities to meet with senior officials from the DPRK on Australia’s behalf.

While Prime Minister Scott Morrison “prayed” for Sigley, much more is required to get private citizens out of detention overseas. What went on behind the scenes to secure Sigley’s release and the release of other Australians trapped in heavily militarised countries?

Australia’s diplomatic strings

Australia’s relationship with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is strained, with embassies opening and closing at the flip of a coin. Aid to the country cut was in 2015 and in the 2017 foreign policy white paper, North Korea is defined as a “grave and growing threat”.

So when Sigley vanished, Australia turned to Sweden for assistance. Sweden was the first western country to establish an embassy in North Korea and has a strong humanitarian focus.

Australian National University North Korea expert — and a friend of Sigley — Leonid Petrov said his release wouldn’t have happened without Sweden.

“I don’t think Australia has leverage on North Korea,” he said. “Without Swedish representation, it would have taken longer and been more complicated.”

Rescue from Egypt

Australian journalist Peter Greste was arrested in Egypt in December 2013 along with Al-Jazeera colleagues Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy for “damaging national security” through their “false” reporting. After enduring solitary confinement, months-long trial and hundreds of days in detention they were found guilty and sentenced to seven to 10 years in prison.

Greste told Crikey that while he had regular visits from consular staff in Cairo, there was “more going on behind the scenes that either I or my family knew at the time”.

Despite the presence of an Australian consulate, the challenges were similar.

“The problem for Australia was it never had any real leverage over Egypt — to the extent it had trade, [the government] was never going to sacrifice that over me,” Greste told Crikey.

“Australia had no direct influence or strategic connections with Egypt. So Australia was relying on friends of friends, particularly in the Middle East — the Emirates and the Jordanians, I understand were involved. Now, exactly what those levers were, I honestly don’t know, and it’s only in conversations with diplomats in the years since that I learned that they were involved in working those back channels.” 

And while Greste’s case was in some ways a particularly public one, he believes it was the private diplomacy that proved crucial.

“I don’t think I’d be here with a lot of the private deal making,” he said. “The kinds of personal relationships and private connections are vastly more important in solving these problems than we give them credit for.”

It’s all about ‘soft power’

In extradition and extrication cases, Australia can use two methods: official representation or goodwill and relationships. In Greste’s case and that of filmmaker James Ricketson who was jailed in Cambodia, Australia used the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to secure the journalists’ release. In cases such as Sigley’s, Petrov said, there’s more focus on “soft power, communication behind the scenes, and goodwill”.

“Countries like Australia are still treated as suspicious and distrustful because of our involvement in the Korean war,” he said. “Official representation may not have worked, and diplomatic relations are often damaged by Australia’s participation in military exercises.

“Australia is seen as the 51st state of the US. Countries which are in conflict with the US may backfire on Australia’s soft power and ability to resolve sensitive situations. It makes it harder to extradite nationals.”

“North Korea is a state which is fixated on its security because of the continuing military conflict. The authorities consider themselves under pressure with sanctions, and military threat. From their perspective, they’re subject to preemptive strike and the authorities are doing everything to support and protect the regime from foreign interference.”

Greste agreed that the perception of Australian as the “handmaiden of the US” diminishes its capability to wield soft power.

“The reason the Swedes could intervene on our behalf isn’t just because they have an embassy in North Korea, it’s because they have the respect, they are seen as a fair broker and neutral party, and so Sweden’s influence and soft power vastly exceeds its economic or strategic value,” he said. “I think that Australia could and should be the Sweden of the south, much more engaged and be seen as more neutral”. 

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