Inside North Korea: What life for a rare foreign student in Pyongyang reveals about the reclusive country

Alek Sigley was pursuing a master's degree at North Korea's premier university.

LONDON -- Alek Sigley was, in many regards, just like any other 29-year-old postgraduate student.

Until recently, the Australian native was pursuing a master's degree in Korean literature at Kim Il Sung University in the capital, Pyongyang. At the time, he was the only foreign student enrolled in that postgraduate program, one of just three students from Western nations at the school and the only Australian in the entire country.

In a twist, Sigley was detained by North Korean authorities on or around June 26, after spending more than a year there as a foreign student. The state-run Korean Central News Agency said that Sigley, who has documented his life in Pyongyang on his blog and for various columns, was caught spying by "systemically collecting and offering data" to media outlets with critical views toward North Korea. The agency said Sigley was deported from the country on July 4 out of “humanitarian leniency," after he "admitted his spying acts" and "repeatedly asked for pardon."

Sigley left North Korea after being released and is now "safe and well," according to a joint statement from Australia's prime minister and the foreign affairs minister.

Sigley broke his silence on Twitter several days later, saying the allegation that he is a spy is "false" and he won't be answering questions about the incident. Sigley added that, although he is "still very interested" in North Korea and wants to continue his studies, he currently has "no plans to visit the country again, at least in the short term."

"The whole situation makes me very sad," Sigley wrote in a series of tweets on July 9. "I may never again walk the streets of Pyongyang, a city that holds a very special place in my heart."

A few months prior to his detention, ABC News interviewed Sigley about what everyday life was like for him in Pyongyang. After his release, Sigley had no problem with ABC News publishing this story, but he declined to comment on his detention.

Life in the capital for a foreign student, like Sigley, is not representative of life for ordinary citizens across the country, many of whom are oppressed and impoverished. Nevertheless, Sigley's experience offers a rare glimpse into North Korea's opaque society and some of the changes that may be underway in Pyongyang.

'The human side of North Korea'

Sigley, who grew up in Perth, became interested in North Korea while he was an undergraduate student majoring in Asian studies at the Australian National University in Canberra. He studied abroad in China in 2011, where he lived in a dormitory at Shanghai's Fudan University and happened to be on the same floor as North Korean students.

"I bumped into them in the communal kitchen, in the corridor, in the elevator, and I would make small talk with them. You don't meet someone from North Korea very often and get to live in close proximity," Sigley told ABC News in a telephone interview earlier this year. "I thought this would be really an interesting opportunity to just get to know some North Koreans as actual people."

There was one North Korean student in particular whom Sigley said he got to know through conversation and who offered him a ride when his bicycle was stolen.

"It was a friendly gesture and I found it quite touching," Sigley said. "Encounters like that really piqued my curiosity about the human side of North Korea and that snowballed into an academic interest which I had developed, and I started studying Korean."

Sigley made his first trip to North Korea in 2012 as a tourist, spending five nights in Pyongyang. He met some people there in the local travel industry who inspired him a year later to start Tongil Tours, an Australian-based company that specializes in educational tourism to North Korea. After being released from detention earlier this month, Sigley announced via Twitter that "Tongil Tours will be cancelling all its tours until further notice."

As his undergraduate graduation neared, Sigley looked into the possibility of continuing his studies in North Korea so he could experience Korean culture and literature "firsthand." By that point, he had visited the country about a dozen times on short trips but wanted to be in Pyongyang long-term.

"What better place to study than at Kim Il Sung University," he said of North Korea's premier university, named after the country's founder. "I thought it could be a really interesting, rewarding experience."

But it was no ordinary application process, according to Sigley.

"There is no information anywhere," he said. "The university has a website but if you go on the website, you'll not find any information about how to apply."

Sigley was able to get in touch with someone directly at the university through the contacts he had made in the local tourism industry. He was told he had to apply for a student visa and send the school a slew of materials, including a letter of intent, police certificates, medical records certifying he had a recent health examination and a recommendation letter from a teacher confirming his ability to speak fluent Korean. Then, he waited to hear back.

"It was a bit of a tense wait," Sigley said, adding that it took about two years from when he first began inquiring to when he found out that he was accepted into the graduate program.

In March 2018, Sigley flew to China's capital, where he picked up his visa from the North Korean embassy and took an overnight train to the border city of Dandong, then hopped on another to Pyongyang.

The enigma of North Korea

ABC News' Bob Woodruff and Martha Raddatz have both been on assignment to North Korea, and their reporting has helped shed light on the reclusive country. Still, insight into daily life there is rare.

North Korea has no formal diplomatic relations with the United States and thus no U.S. embassy. The U.S. Department of State advises Americans not to travel to North Korea "due to the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention of U.S. nationals."

One of the more recent cases is Otto Warmbier, an American college student who was arrested in Pyongyang in January 2016 for allegedly trying to steal a propaganda poster while he was visiting North Korea on a sightseeing tour organized by a China-based company. He was convicted and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. After nearly 17 months in detention, Warmbier was released and medically evacuated to the United States in June 2017. The 22-year-old was in a coma and died just days later at an Ohio hospital.

North Korea's totalitarian regime has been ruled by three men of the same family since 1948, when the Korean Peninsula was divided between North and South. A war broke out between the two nations on June 25, 1950, after a string of clashes along the border. The conflict turned into a proxy battle between Cold War powers, with the Soviet Union and China supporting North Korea and U.S.-led United Nations forces defending South Korea. A ceasefire brought an end to the hostilities three years later, but the Korean War is technically still not over.

North Korea's economy was in shambles by the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a major ally. The country has also been crippled by a number of international sanctions, most recently due to its pursuit of a nuclear weapons program.

According to United Nations entities operating in North Korea, some 10.9 million people -- more than 43 percent of the total population -- are undernourished and suffer from food insecurity, and also have unmet health, water, sanitation and hygiene needs. Nearly 10 million people do not have access to safe drinking water and 16 percent of people do not have access to basic sanitation facilities. There are also major disparities in the quality of life between rural areas and major cities, such as access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

Yet North Korea maintains one of the world's largest standing armed forces. In its most recent human rights report, the Korean Institute for National Unification, a think tank funded by the South Korean government, stated that ongoing food shortages for farmers in North Korea were a result of the government's discriminatory food rationing based on class and prioritization of military rationing.

North Korea has a state-run labor system in which ordinary workers in both urban and rural areas are assigned jobs, many of which are unpaid. Workers are often forced to bribe officials to get permission to be absent from their assigned workplace so they can work at other jobs in the private sector as a means of survival, according to a 2019 report by the Human Rights Watch. Failure to show up to state-assigned work without permission is a crime punishable by three to six months in forced labor training camps.

Human Rights Watch calls North Korea "one of the world's most repressive states," which "restricts all civil and political liberties, including freedom of expression, assembly, association and religion."

Public transportation in Pyongyang

As a foreign student, Sigley said he had much more access to Pyongyang than tourists did and could explore most areas without a guide.

The Pyongyang Metro, located some 360 feet beneath the capital, is how many residents commute each day. Built in the 1970s, the bustling subway system is made up of 16 stations, some of which boast bright chandeliers and massive mosaics, often depicting North Korean founder Kim Il Sung.

Tourists, including diplomats and humanitarian workers, must be accompanied by guides to use the metro and other means of transportation.

"To ride the Pyongyang Metro like completely alone is something that not many people can do," Sigley told ABC News. "If they want to get the subway, if they want to get a taxi, they have to get a Korean interpreter to go with them. But us foreign students, we can use taxis and the metro freely."

Locals and foreigners wishing to travel within the country need a permit issued by local authorities and proper identification, which are verified at numerous checkpoints within and between provinces.

Fitting in as a foreigner

Sigley said he dressed plainly and is half-Chinese, which allowed him to "blend in" better than some other foreigners.

"But I do sometimes notice people looking at me," he told ABC News.

Authorities rarely stopped him to ask for identification, he said, unless he was trying to catch the metro with one of his classmates who's European and sticks out.

"Everything is pretty quickly smoothed over when we tell them that we're foreign students and we show them some ID," Sigley said. "But when I've gone alone, actually they've never stopped me, so I've kind of been able to blend in."

Encounters with authorities

Overall, Sigley said his experience with security in Pyongyang was "fairly laid back," with authorities who were friendly and showed an "innocent curiosity" in foreign students like himself.

"People there are people just like anywhere else," he told ABC News. "They're curious, especially in a sort of place where we don't really get to see a lot of foreigners."

Sigley described one instance when he was traveling back from Pyongyang International Airport after seeing off a friend who was visiting. Sigley was stopped at a military checkpoint when trying to re-enter the capital and he still hadn't been issued his foreign student ID, so the rifle-bearing soldiers had to bring him into a room for questioning.

"They took me into this kind of like drab, concrete, almost like a bunker kind of thing where I had to talk through a tiny slit in the cement to someone," he told ABC News. "But again, throughout the whole time, they were actually really friendly and we were joking and talking."

"And everything was fine in the end," he added. "They had big smiles on their faces."

Encounters with locals

North Korean laws and customs generally keep foreigners and locals separate in most aspects of life in Pyongyang, according to Sigley.

For instance, foreigners are allowed to bring qualifying mobile phones into the country and purchase a SIM card with a local carrier or rent a handset with a SIM card; but they aren't allowed to call locals, whose cellphones operate on a separate network, Sigley said.

There's also certain places, like some shops and restaurants, that are off-limits to foreigners, and it's taboo for a foreigner to visit the home of a local.

"It's still a very closed society and, in that respect, there's still a lot of restrictions," Sigley told ABC News.

However, as a student, Sigley had more interaction with locals than most foreigners ever would. There are some North Korean students living among the foreign students in the foreign student dormitory at Kim Il Sung University, serving as their "guides," and Sigley even shared a room with one for several months.

Sigley said his North Korean roommate loved soccer and was a big fan of professional players Lionel Messi of Argentina and Neymar da Silva Santos Junior of Brazil. He followed top professional men's soccer clubs such as Barcelona and Real Madrid and watched the FIFA World Cup, which wasn't broadcast live on North Korean television but rather recorded and played back on the local sports channel.

Sigley's roommate, at the time, practiced goose-stepping so he could join the university troupe that marches with the soldiers in the annual military parades at Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square.

"In some respects, he's just like any other kid in his early 20s," Sigley said.

University life

Kim Il Sung University is located in a central part of the capital. Sigley described the campus as "very green" and "orderly," with plenty of trees, pristine lawns and tidy flower beds.

He described the university buildings as tall and modern, and each one has a massive slogan on the exterior. The tallest building on campus has a common North Korean slogan that lights up in red at nighttime so the students can see it from their dormitories. It reads, "The great leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Un will always be with us," according to Sigley.

All students must wear uniforms. The men wear a white button-up shirt with a red tie, slacks and a blazer. The women have an option to wear either a traditional Korean style dress or a white button-up blouse with a pencil skirt, according to Sigley.

Sigley said foreign students can't interact freely with their North Korean counterparts on campus, apart from the ones who live with them in the dormitory.

There were only two other students from Western countries studying at Kim Il Sung University. Most of the other foreign students were from China, according to Sigley.

Students don't hang out on the lawns reading books or playing sports, like you often see at universities in Western nations, Sigley said. Rather, the North Korean students are often seen cleaning and maintaining the campus, such as mopping the hallway floors and weeding the flower beds.

"It's much more of like a serious atmosphere," Sigley told ABC News.

Pyongyang fashion

Fashion is a form of expression of art and one's identity. But Sigley said it's under strict limitations in North Korea.

The regime forbids denim, piercings and hair dye, as well as certain makeup, he said. Men must keep their hair short, while women's hair can't be longer than mid-length. Garments must be modest in fit and color, with dresses and skirts no shorter than knee-length.

The typical style for men is a dark Mao suit with a crew cut and tinted sunglasses. Though Sigley told ABC News that he had noticed the younger men sporting slightly longer hairstyles on the streets of Pyongyang.

"They still can't have anything too crazy," he added. "You can't have a green mohawk or anything like that."

Sigley said he had also seen an increasingly colorful and modern array of womenswear promoted in North Korean fashion magazines, which are regulated by the government. High heels are all the rage now, and every woman -- from office workers to security guards -- can be seen wearing them in Pyongyang, according to Sigley.

Internet access

North Korea is one of the least wired nations in the world. Internet users are scant, with access restricted to regime elites, foreigners and select university students, according to Sigley.

Only the ruling elite and foreigners have direct access to the unrestricted global internet, as the outside world knows it. Privileged North Koreans use a domestic intranet network that is tightly-controlled by the government and only accessible from within the country's borders.

Because he was a foreign student, Sigley said he had access to both. There's a computer room in the foreign student dormitory at Kim Il Sung University where students can access the internet. But Sigley also used the domestic intranet service to play video games with the other foreign students, he said.

The country's cellular networks along with a relatively new Wi-Fi service allow citizens in Pyongyang with mobile phones and other portable devices to access the intranet network, but not the global internet, according to Sigley.

A taste of consumerism

When they weren't in class or studying, Sigley and the other foreign students liked to explore Pyongyang's increasingly diverse culinary scene. They tried to go to a different restaurant each week, he said.

Sigley said he was pleasantly surprised by the cultural variety, from traditional North Korean dishes and authentic Chinese cuisine to Italian classics, such as pizza and spaghetti, and even some American fast-food favorites, like burgers and fried chicken.

"They do provide some interesting insight into how society is developing," Sigley told ABC News. "A lot of these restaurants are fairly new."

"Over the past couple years," he added, "the consumer economy has continued to grow and diversify."

There are also "specialty restaurants," including one that specializes in corn dishes.

Most of these restaurants, however, are not accessible to tourists and are too expensive for the average North Korean. They are largely patronized by the elite and foreigners. There are cheaper restaurants frequented by locals that typically offer just Korean dishes, according to Sigley.

Sigley said he also liked to "hunt" for interesting, North Korean-made products at shops around Pyongyang in his spare time.

For instance, there's a popular brand replicating Adidas that puts the iconic logo on everything from sportswear to cigarettes.

There's also a soda that looks and tastes a lot like Sprite or 7 Up but is called "Spruce Up."

Recently, Sigley came across a remote-controlled toy tank with a slogan written in Korean on the front that reads, "Annihilate the American Imperialists."

"I do like to collect this kind of stuff," he said.

There are foreign-made products, too. Sigley said Disney movies are very popular among North Koreans and he saw shops and street vendors in Pyongyang selling the classics on DVD, like "Winnie the Pooh." Musicals, Bollywood films and martial arts movies featuring Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan are also well liked, he said.

View of the U.S.

On June 12, 2018, a historic summit was held in Singapore between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump. The two men discussed North Korea's illicit nuclear weapons program and a potential deal for denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula. It was the first time a sitting U.S. president met face-to-face with a North Korean leader.

Sigley was in Pyongyang at the time and said there was immense interest in the summit among locals, who followed the extensive coverage of the big event on North Korea's state-run media.

"It was really interesting for me to watch that process from on the ground in Pyongyang," Sigley told ABC News.

In the days leading up to the summit, Sigley said he saw long lines of people on the streets of Pyongyang waiting to collect their copies of the daily newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, which serves as the chief organ of the country's ruling Workers' Party of Korea. Sigley said he also had conversations with his North Korean classmates, who expressed hope that better relations with the United States could lead to sanctions relief and perhaps a peace treaty with South Korea to formally end the war.

During the summit, Trump and Kim signed a vague statement saying they would both commit to working toward a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, but didn't specify how. Photos of the two leaders in Singapore appeared on the front page of the Rodong Sinmun the following day, and a documentary about the summit was featured another day later on North Korea's state-owned broadcaster, Korean Central Television, according to Sigley.

Sigley said he asked his North Korean roommate at the time how locals were reacting to the outcome of the summit. He told Sigley that they viewed it as a success on the part of their leader but were still awaiting actual change, particularly in sanctions.

"People were still quite skeptical," Sigley told ABC News. "But then I noticed, after some time, there started to be quite a change in attitude."

In the days after the summit, Sigley said the state media toned down the anti-U.S. rhetoric and even some anti-American propaganda posted in prominent places around central Pyongyang were taken down.

"There was a slogan board that said, 'If the U.S. imperialists strike us again, we will wipe them from the face of the earth.' That slogan board was removed," Sigley said

"There was another slogan board that had a picture of the White House being obliterated," he added. "That one was taken down actually before the summit happened."

Sigley was also surprised by the impact the summit had on the attitudes of his North Korean teachers and classmates, who all described it as a "new era" and "the end" of decades of animosity with the United States. It was the first time Sigley saw some "genuine hope" that U.S.-North Korea relations could improve, he said.

A second Trump-Kim summit took place in February in Hanoi, Vietnam. The denuclearization-for-peace talks have been stalled ever since.

"I can still see a lot of the, like, distrust of Americans, which is historical, you know, because they remember the war," Sigley told ABC News. "But there was more optimism than I'd ever seen before."

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