But he will allow this – he’s very happy that Sigley has been released from detention in North Korea, more than a week after he was reported missing.
“We are happy that this could get a quick and good solution – and I actually think it’s good for everyone,” Harstedt said over the phone from Stockholm early on Friday morning (AEST), where he had just returned from China after accompanying Sigley on a flight from North Korea to Beijing.
“Trust is the key,” he said.
Harstedt has one of the most delicate and demanding jobs in modern diplomacy.
He is Sweden’s “special envoy” to the Korean peninsula, a job established in 2017 at the height of tensions between the Pyongyang regime and the rest of the world, amid (as he diplomatically put it) “this very tense and dangerous situation when there was a threat of potential violence and perhaps even more”.
The Swedish government decided to use the accumulated trust it had built up with countries involved in the peninsula to “increase efforts to work for some peaceful developments, and for dialogue”, Harstedt said.
“It’s exhausting,” Harstedt said, of a job that has him regularly flying between Stockholm, Pyongyang, Beijing, Moscow, Washington and Tokyo.
But it is also a privileged position.
His own first visit to North Korea was 25 years ago. Since then, he has been part of a diplomatic bridge between the isolated regime and the rest of the world.
Sweden has had an embassy in North Korea since 1975 and acts as a “protecting power” for countries including the United States; a neutral envoy that can keep open lines of communication even at the moments of maximum tension.
“There are not so many [countries] that have that kind of access,” Harstedt said.
Part of Sweden’s role is to give consular support to Australian citizens in North Korea, where we have no official presence.
Harstedt landed in Pyongyang on Monday, five days after the first reports emerged that Sigley may have been detained for unknown reasons.
He had been briefed by the Swedish government, on request from Australia, “to work for a swift and fast solution to this situation”.
But he had to tread carefully.
“When I came there it was not even admitted that they held [Sigley] in custody,” Harstedt said.
He will not go into details on precisely what his instructions were, the situation he found, or how it was resolved.
But “I felt they listened”, he said of the North Korean authorities.
“They were listening carefully and attentively to the approach [I made], and they were open to it.”
Pyongyang’s official news agency reported on Tuesday that Harstedt held talks with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho. Officially, they discussed “the development of bilateral relations and the present situation on the Korean peninsula”, the agency reported.
Harstedt said he knows more about the situation, and the reasons behind Sigley’s detention and release, than would be appropriate to reveal.
And he said Sigley’s quick release should not be “simplified” as a response to his intervention.
“There might be a more complicated explanation, for many reasons, for the timing and the way it happened,” he said, cryptically.
But he praised the team that travelled with him, and the local Swedish embassy staff in North Korea who worked alongside him.
“Trust,” he said. “In a very difficult relationship, trust is the key.”
Asked if he was pleased with the result, he replied, “Of course”.
In such a careful dance, it doesn’t do to make too much of such things.
Sweden’s Foreign Minister Margot Wallström said in a tweet she was “relieved” Sigley had made it safely out of the country.
“Happy for the release of Australian citizen Alek Sigley today!” Wallström tweeted.
“Sweden has done its utmost to work for Mr Sigley under our bilateral agreement with Australia. Relieved that the situation was resolved.”
Nick Miller is Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age