When Swedish diplomat Kent Harstedt arrived in Pyongyang to negotiate the release of Alek Sigley, he did so the day after Mr Trump and Mr Kim’s meeting.
“Whoever made the decision to put [Alek] outside of the ability to communicate, probably had in mind national security for North Koreans,” said Dr Petrov, now a senior lecturer at the International College of Management, Sydney.
“Alek is known as being friendly, so I’m sure they did it in a mild way, a sensible way. That’s my theory and it still stands: he was deliberately cut out of communications and it was prompted by things happening on the Korean peninsula.”
Mr Harstedt alluded to bigger things at play. As the Swedish special envoy to North Korea, he is the point man for many countries, including Australia, that do not have their own diplomatic presence in the reclusive country.
As Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his officials spoke to Japanese, South Korean and American counterparts at the G20 summit in Osaka about Mr Sigley’s disappearance, Australia was also mobilising Mr Harstedt through the Swedish government.
Mr Harstedt won’t reveal exactly what he said to North Korean officials after he landed on Monday in their capital Pyongyang. But he told The Herald and The Age that the quick release by Thursday should not be “simplified” as a response to the intervention by his team.
“There might be a more complicated explanation, for many reasons, for the timing and the way it happened,” he said.
North Korean officials initially refused to admit they even had Mr Sigley in detention, Mr Harstedt said. But by early Thursday morning, Australian officials had received word that Mr Harstedt’s team had confirmed the 29-year-old was detained and that his situation was being discussed in Pyongyang.
By mid-morning of that day, the Australian embassy in Seoul got word from the Swedish Ambassador there was a strong possibility Mr Sigley would be handed over to Mr Harstedt’s delegation at the airport as they left North Korea. The Australian government quickly dispatched two officials to the airport in Beijing, to which Mr Sigley would be flying.
Mr Sigley has been a frequent writer about North Korean food, culture and society as he led trips to the country with his company Tongil Tours. His business partner Michelle Joyce doubts Mr Sigley was detained over any serious issue. This was a view also expressed by well-informed sources.
Ms Joyce said Mr Sigley and the company had built strong relationships in North Korea, which meant it was unlikely he would have been targetted out of suspicion he’d done anything wrong.
“Maybe it was something that was part of the procedure,” she said. “They make sure that foreign students that have access to communications don’t say anything around the time of a major event. Sometimes people are instructed not to talk to others in those periods.
“I think that is a good theory,” she added. “I don’t know that’s what happened, but it’s a good theory.”
David Wroe is defence and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Nick Miller is Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age