This article was updated and corrected on June 27, 2019, at 5 p.m. EDT
SEOUL—They thought they had more or less beaten the system in Pyongyang, and now they’re strangely missing, perhaps after overplaying their hands.
It’s hard to know exactly what to make of the disappearance of Australian Alek Sigley, the founder of a travel agency that runs tours into North Korea, including one that ended with fatal consequences for American student Otto Warmbier in 2016. And the case of Kenji Fujimoto, a Japanese chef who has known North Korea’s Kim Jong Un since Kim was a boy, is even more curious.
The longer they’re not seen or heard from, the deeper the speculation here that they got on the wrong side of a leader who has had little compunction about killing family members he felt betrayed him and certainly would have fewer qualms about jailing and interrogating, or worse, obsequious foreigners whose friendship he had come to doubt.
Sigley’s tour agency, Tongil, has arranged group and individual visits for an extraordinary range of clients. The operation is much like the one that promised University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier a typical five-day tour that ended with his arrest on Jan. 2, 2016, charged with pilfering a propaganda poster from his hotel.
Warmbier’s imprisonment and death, soon after being returned in a coma to his home in Cincinnati 17 months later, did not appear to have had much impact on either Sigley or Tongil Tours, which was a different operation. But the agency did stop booking Americans.
Sigley, 29, has been studying at Pyongyang’s elite Kim Il Sung University when not leading tours around North Korea. But he dropped out of sight after tweeting excitedly on Monday, “New signage above the main entrance to the Ryugyong Hotel bearing its name and logo.” Might that be “a sign,” he asked, that the 105-story monstrosity (a notorious white elephant built between 1987 and 1992 as a monument to the rule of Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung) would “soon be open for business”?
That observation might not seem exactly hostile to the Kim dynasty, but because of the enormous flame-shaped building’s problematic past, the 29-year-old Sigley may have aroused the suspicions of the security and intelligence apparatus buttressing the regime.
Sigley has been such a high-profile bon vivant, so effusive about his seeming love for the life in North Korea, that he appeared if anything to be kowtowing to the people on whom he depended for a living. But a South Korean cable TV outfit, Channel A, cites “an influential source on Korea” as saying he was “recently arrested.” Now, even if he shows up none the worse for wear, the fact that he hasn’t tweeted a thing since his report on the Ryugyong Hotel suggests that someone wasn’t happy about what he wrote.
“The North Koreans are sending a message,” said Paik Hak-soon, president of the Sejong Institute, an influential government-funded think tank. “They are saying, ‘We are not so pliable.’” There’s no flexibility where the honor of the regime might be at stake.
Sigley should have known there is almost nothing that could be said about the Ryugyong Hotel that would not sound like mockery. It is a longstanding high-rise joke. In recent years, the project has suffered from failing elevators and deteriorating concrete, among numerous structural problems. Sigley, however, had reason to think he was in the good graces of the regime.
While the Australian government was looking for “clarification” of where the hell he was, the North’s party newspaper Rodong Sinmun had him saying he found the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) “a very fascinating country.”
There was, he was quoted as saying, "no other country like DPRK in the world” and “to visit and to see is the most important way to break the negative perception of the country.”
There was no telling, of course, if Sigley was compelled to say all that to make up for the rude affront of his comment on the Ryugyong or if he uttered those words before disappearing – or indeed, they were written for him. In any case, such flattery was pretty typical of his usual discourse.
Sigley believed he knew how to stay in the good graces of the regime. In many interviews he could not have seemed happier. "I've never felt threatened, and this whole year has been a period of rapprochement," he told the British TV network, Sky News. “Last year when things were really bad and lots of threats were traded, it was totally life as normal."
Sigley professed, in an interview with the South Korean website NK News, not to be “particularly interested in saying what has already been said a thousand times” but “to present life in North Korea as I see it and experience it.”
In a commentary for the British newspaper The Guardian, he acknowledged that “interaction with locals can be limited,” but said he could still “shop and dine” as he wished. And, he went on, “Despite heavy sanctions, Pyongyang has a small but growing consumer class, due in part to government policies to liberalise sections of the economy.”
Sigley may have a better chance escaping serious consequences than Kenji Fujimoto, who served Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, as his personal chef before escaping to Japan in 2001 while on a shopping expedition for culinary delicacies. After the death of Kim Jong Il in December 2011, Fujimoto returned at the impassioned request of Kim Jong Un, even though he had written a book exposing some of the excesses of the Kim family, including his days as a “playmate” for the lonely kid.
Fujimoto has often been in and out of Pyongyang since then looking for special food items for Kim, but a Japanese newspaper, Daily Shincho, reported he was finally arrested this week. Although Fujimoto was known earlier to have been a source for Japanese intelligence, the paper said this time his offense may have been more serious – providing information to the U.S. CIA, speculation for which it supplied no substantiation.
Fujimoto’s entrée into North Korean life and society was such that he was able to open a Japanese restaurant, Takahashi, in the heart of the capital. The restaurant, specializing in Japanese-style noodles, was a favorite haunt of visitors eager to see how the regime was getting ever more liberal and open.
A well-known Japanese journalist, Kazuya Iwamura, who has visited Pyongyang about 40 times as correspondent for Kyodo, the Japanese news agency, told me that Fujimoto was actually arrested in February and that his restaurant has been closed ever since.
Iwamura believes that Fujimoto seriously offended the regime in three books that he wrote after working for Kim Jong Il and that he had deepened the offense in extended interviews with Anna Fifield, Washington Post correspondent and author of The Great Successor, ironically subtitled The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un.
Judging from some of Fifield’s remarks in interviews, it’s not hard to see why the North Koreans might have been upset.
“When this Japanese sushi chef arrived to make sushi for the royal household, Kim Jong Un seems to have kind of taken a shine to him as somebody interesting and eccentric and spent a lot of time with him,” she said in an interview with PBS. “They flew kites together. He went out fishing with Fujimoto.”
Fifield said Fujimoto, when she met him in Japan, told her “he would catch fish from the boat, and then Kim Jong-un would come along and take the fishing pole off him and brag about, ‘I caught a fish, I caught a fish,’ and, like, take the credit for this.”
So, said Fifield, “he was somebody who was used to being doted upon and having his own way from a very early age.”
Elizabeth Shim, reporting for United Press International, cited a source saying those who knew Fujimoto in Japan believed he “could have been under suspicion of sharing intelligence with the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency”—a routine claim to make against a foreigner who has incurred the regime’s displeasure, and a very dangerous one whether substantiated or not.
Steve Tharp, a former U.S. Army officer who has been analyzing North Korean activities here for decades, believes both Sigley and Fujimoto were engaged in risky games that sooner or later would be their undoing. “People that frequently handle snakes,” said Tharp, “sometimes get bit and sometimes die.”
An earlier version of this story had reported that Otto Warmbier was on on one of Alek Sigley’s tours when he was arrested.