As Australian PM Scott Morrison prays, Sweden steps up as mediator for missing Alek Sigley in North Korea
- Stockholm has long served as a channel for countries that don’t have formal relations with Pyongyang to make contact and work through disputes with it
- The Nordic nation is ‘dealing with’ the case of student Alek Sigley, who has not been heard from since June 23 and is feared detained by the North
Their task has been made all the harder by the fact that Australia, like most Western countries, has no diplomatic presence in the hermit kingdom. Instead of making inquiries directly with North Korean authorities, Australian diplomats have had to rely on an intermediary – Sweden, which has long served as a channel for countries that don’t have formal relations with Pyongyang to make contact and work through disputes with it.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday said the government was working with Sweden but had yet to determine Sigley’s detention or location. As if to emphasise the practical obstacles involved, Morrision, an evangelical Christian, said he was praying for the student’s swift and safe return.
Sigley, who was studying for a masters in Korean literature at Kim Il-sung University in the North Korean capital, hasn’t been heard from since dropping out of contact with friends and family on June 23. Last week, South Korean broadcaster Channel A, citing an unnamed government source, reported that the student had been arrested and detained by North Korean authorities.
“We had the willingness to be that sort of actor between the socialists and the capitalists,” said Niklas Swanström, executive director of the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm. “Sweden had a foot in both worlds.”
To this day, it remains among a handful of Western countries with a diplomatic presence in the country alongside Britain, Germany, Romania and Poland. Under formal agreements to act as a protecting power, Stockholm provides limited consular functions inside the isolated country for Australia, the United States, Canada and the other Nordic nations.
Warmbier, then 22, was eventually released in a vegetative state in June 2017 after 18 months in custody, leading his parents to accuse the regime of torturing him. He died several days later.
Although most Western detainees have been released unharmed after a period of months or several years, Korean-American missionary Robert Park reported being subjected to beatings and torture during his six weeks in custody in 2009-2010.
Diana Qudhaib, a spokesman with the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the government was “aware” of and “dealing with” Sigley’s situation but could not go into detail about individual cases.
On Monday, Swedish Special Envoy Kent Rolf Magnus Harstedt arrived in Pyongyang for talks that Australian media speculated could be related to Sigley’s disappearance.
John Blaxland, a professor of international security at the Australian National University, said Canberra had to rely on Sweden due to limited resources that weighed against maintaining an embassy in an obscure destination like North Korea.
“The frustration of diplomats is palpable, knowing that Australia’s diplomatic footprint globally is disproportionately small when set against comparable [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development] nations,” said Blaxland.
Sweden’s role as mediator has benefited from its popular image as a neutral and peace-loving country, despite it moving away from a long-standing formal policy of neutrality in recent years to forge security ties with the European Union and transatlantic security alliance Nato.
“We’re non-threatening,” said Swanström from the Institute for Security and Development Policy. “Of course we have interests internationally, but we normally have very little geopolitical interest in these conflicts, and therefore we’re well suited to provide that ‘good offices and go-between’ role.”
Mickey Bergman, a proponent of “fringe diplomacy” who helped negotiate Warmbier’s release, said the perception of neutrality was key to effective diplomacy.
“The representative embassy needs to balance its own contacts and interests, and thus often serves merely as ‘good offices’, meaning it transmits reliable messages, questions and answers,” said Bergman, vice-president of the New Mexico-based Richardson Centre for Global Engagement.
“The representative embassy will almost never take a hard position on a case. That would run cross-purpose to its existence. So, as long as you know what you can expect and what not, it is an extremely useful tool in our toolkit.”