Interview with Ben Fordham, 2GB

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Alek Sigley, Hong Kong Protests.
03 July 2019

BEN FORDHAM: An Australian citizen is still missing in the most secretive country on the planet. I'm talking about 29-year-old Perth man Alek Sigley.

He lives in North Korea, but he has not been heard from in more than a week, and that is highly unusual. He's been in the country since 2013. He's studied there and he runs a tour company. He even got married in that part of the world. Although, his Japanese wife, she does not live in North Korea and she hasn't heard from Alek either. Can you imagine how worried this family is?

If you look at his social media accounts, his respect for the North Korean culture, he has countless posts educating people about the signs and the sounds and the smells of the country, and then out of the blue, he disappears; and no one, not even the Australian Government, has answers.

On the line right now, we've got Marise Payne, the Foreign Minister. She's got an update for us this afternoon. Minister, thank you very much for joining us.

MINISTER PAYNE: Good afternoon, Ben.

BEN FORDHAM: Have you got new news, or just a general update for us?

MARISE PAYNE: Broadly a general update, Ben. I mean, the Australian Government is very concerned about Alek Sigley's welfare, as you've outlined. He hasn't been in contact with his family and that is definitely out of character. We aware of the reports that have suggested he might have been detained by North Korean authorities, we are doing all we can to confirm his location and his welfare and…

BEN FORDHAM: [Interrupts] Have we asked North Korea the question, whether or not he has been detained?

MARISE PAYNE: We are making urgent enquiries with North Korean authorities, yes, and we have to do that through the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang. They look after consular matters in North Korea on our behalf.

We don't have a diplomatic presence in North Korea. One piece of information, which I think is very important in terms of the current discussions, is that Sweden's special envoy is making a regularly scheduled visit to North Korea this week, and as I've said, we're working very closely with them on this matter and we're seeking their support to raise this directly. But we keep all our avenues under review in terms of other options and other countries we might be able to work with to seek information.

BEN FORDHAM: Look, I know we have got to be positive but you can't help but think about that young bloke from America, Otto Warmbier, who was, about three years ago, he was arrested. They reckon he stole a poster from a hotel, and by the time he was handed back to American authorities, he was in a coma and died soon after. Does that play on your mind as Foreign Minister?

MARISE PAYNE: Well, of course, what happened to Otto Warmbier was an absolute tragedy and I'm deeply sorry for his family. But it's important to say that as far as we're aware, there's no connection between that case and the case of Alek Sigley.

BEN FORDHAM: No. No connection, but you're thinking: okay, well, we've seen in the past the way North Korea has treated people when they detain them.

MARISE PAYNE: And I'm always concerned for an Australian's welfare in these circumstances and so everything we can do - through our consular system and through our country-to-country engagements - we are trying to do to endeavour to determine where he is located and what his situation is.

I feel very, very deeply for his family. As you said in your opening remarks, both his family here in Australia and for his wife, this is a very difficult time.

BEN FORDHAM: So because we don't have an embassy in North Korea that prevents us, does it, from picking up the phone and having a conversation with them and saying: hey, he's one of ours. Do you know anything about him? Can you help us find him?

MARISE PAYNE: Well, it doesn't quite work like that, but we work with the agencies that we have connections with - and in this case, it is Sweden, because they have an embassy on the ground who have connections with the North Korean authorities to pursue that, and also, as I said, any other avenue which might be available.

The Prime Minister, of course, has received offers of cooperation and support from various governments and we will work with them discreetly as is appropriate in these very sensitive situations.

BEN FORDHAM: We're speaking to the Foreign Minister Marise Payne about this young man from Perth, 29-year-old Alek Sigley, who's been missing in North Korea for over a week. I'm wondering, Minister, what we can do to help his family at the moment. What are they going through right now?

MARISE PAYNE: Well, they're going through a very difficult time and I do think that they know, given the coverage that has been made of this issue, that Australians are thinking of them, and people in strong positions to communicate to Australians like yourself are thinking of them, and we will certainly be working to support them and provide assistance to them. We do that again through our consular processes, and we are in regular contact with them.

BEN FORDHAM: The Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that he was praying for Alek Sigley, and some critics said we need to do better than that. Can you understand why laymen and women think, hang on a moment, why can't we pick up the phone? We understand that you've got relationships with Sweden, and we're going through those official channels, but is anything lost in picking up a phone and having a conversation with North Korea?

MARISE PAYNE: Well, we'll use any lever that we possibly can, but we don't have very many levers with North Korea. Our relationship is very, very limited, so that it may take us some time to get the information that we need in terms of confirming his whereabouts and confirming his welfare. But I do want to assure Australians that every avenue that we have available to us through our Swedish counterparts, through other countries, and through our own endeavours in speaking to contacts - we are using every single opportunity we have.

BEN FORDHAM: If you're using every single opportunity you have, then one of them would be Donald Trump, wouldn't it? The US President seems to have a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un.

MARISE PAYNE: Well, indeed. And we saw some positive signs, on the broader issue of denuclearisation of course, in terms of the engagement between the President of the Republic of Korea, and Kim Jong Un in their engagement in the DMZ…

BEN FORDHAM: [Interrupting] Have we tapped into the United States of America to seek their assistance with this, considering their relationship with North Korea at the moment being so strong?

MARISE PAYNE: As I said, we're working with every available partner and that includes our closest allies.

BEN FORDHAM: I appreciate the update this afternoon. Before I let you go, Marise Payne, what do you make of what's going on in Hong Kong at the moment? There's been, well, a period of unrest there; riots have seen people storming into the Parliament and ransacking the building. Have you got concerns for Aussies living there at the moment?

MARISE PAYNE: Well, I would absolutely encourage all Australians to make sure that they are taking every effort to protect themselves, and be very careful about where they are in Hong Kong. We are in constant communication with our representatives in Hong Kong, with key stakeholders and decision makers in Hong Kong, and have said we encourage their administration to continue to listen to the views of their people, as they work towards hopefully a peaceful resolution of this current situation.

BEN FORDHAM: Minister, before I let you go, many of my listeners would be aware that your partner is Stuart Ayres, who is a senior member of the New South Wales Government. Now that you're the Foreign Minister, you're going to be out of the country a lot. Can he be trusted to look after the House on his own?

MARISE PAYNE: It means he might have to do my footy tipping.

BEN FORDHAM: Thank you very much for coming on this afternoon.

MARISE PAYNE: Thank you very much, Ben.

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