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North Korea reportedly detains Australian student and tour operator Alek Sigley

Canberra, Australia -- The Australian government said Thursday it was "urgently seeking clarification" on reports that an Australian had been detained in North Korea, which the attorney-general described as a "matter of the utmost seriousness."

The family of Alek Sigley said they had no confirmation that the 29-year-old Pyongyang university student had been detained, as reported by some South Korean news outlets.

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Australian student Alek Sigley is seen in an undated photo provided by his family on June 27, 2019. Sigley family/REUTERS

"Alek has not been in digital contact with friends and family since Tuesday morning Australian time, which is unusual for him," a family statement said.

"Alek's family hope to re-establish contact with him soon," it added.

CBS News' Australian partner Network Ten reports Sigley has been studying for a master's degree in Korean literature in Pyongyang, where he married his Japanese wife last year. The Australian also owns and runs a tour company in the North Korean capital. 

Another North Korea tour operator told CBS News on Thursday 

that Sigley owned and operated a company called Tongil Tours, possibly alone. Emails sent to Tongil Tours by CBS News on Thursday received an automated reply.

Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it was providing consular assistance to the family.

"The department is urgently seeking clarification. Owing to our privacy obligations, we will not provide further comment," a department statement said.

Australia does not have an embassy in North Korea. Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, who is also based in Perth, said Australia's embassy in South Korea "has reached out to relevant officials in North Korea."

"There is obviously some complications in providing consular assistance into North Korea," Cormann told reporters in Japan. "We work through the Swedish government in North Korea and all of these steps are underway."

A regular in Pyongyang

Sigley's family described him as an Asian scholar and traveler who had visited, studied and lived in several countries. He speaks Korean and Mandarin fluently as well as some Japanese, the family said.

He has traveled to North Korea several times since 2014, the statement said.

Network Ten said Sigley claimed in a recent article to be "free to wander around the city, without anyone accompanying me," suggesting he had "nearly unprecedented access" in a country where foreigners are generally closely monitored and controlled by the totalitarian government.

Sigley, a frequent user of his Twitter page to tout news from Pyongyang and tours he's offering, last posted to the account on Monday.  

Australian professor Leonid Petrov told Network Ten that he has maintained regular contact with Sigley via social media since his former pupil moved to North Korea, and that while the account he used still appeared to be active on Thursday, he had no received any reply from Sigley himself.

"The account is active," Petrov told Network Ten. "I don't know, maybe the (Australian) federal police are using, (looking) into this and checking his communication, but somebody is using this."

Sigley told Australian Broadcasting Corp. two years ago that he wanted to break down negative stereotypes about the country.

"If we thought it was unsafe, we would stop doing these tours," Sigley said. "We wouldn't be able to bear the moral and legal responsibility of bringing people to North Korea if it was dangerous."

Official media in North Korea haven't mentioned the reported arrest.

Schools and universities are currently closed for vacation in North Korea, and friends told Network Ten that Sigley was preparing to fly out of the country, making it possible that the student had been detained at the airport in Pyongyang, as foreigners have in the past.

The so-called Hermit Kingdom has a well-documented history of using foreign civilians as political pawns. 

Prisoner pawns

In 2016 North Korea imprisoned American student Otto Warmbier for allegedly pulling down a state propaganda poster. He was detained for more than a year, suffered serve brain damage for reasons which remain unclear, and then died just days after his repatriation to the United States.

As the country pursued diplomacy with the United States last year, it released three American detainees in what the nation's propaganda described as a gesture of goodwill.

Americans freed from North Korea taking it "one day at a time"

The last Australian detained in North Korea was Christian missionary John Short, who was deported in 2014 after a 13-day interrogation.

Australia advises people to reconsider their need to travel to North Korea due to how its laws apply to foreigners and says foreign visitors have been subject to arbitrary arrests and long-term detentions.