A US college student is sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea for stealing a sign

Otto Warmbier during his televised confession.
Otto Warmbier during his televised confession.
Image: Reuters/Kyodo Kyodo
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North Korean authorities have sentenced American college student Otto Warmbier to 15 years of hard labor, the Associated Press reports.

The 21-year old undergraduate at the University of Virginia was first detained on January 2 of this year. He was visiting the country with Young Pioneer Tours, a travel agency based in China that specializes in taking foreigners to the notoriously isolated state.

On February 29th, Warmbier made a televised court appearance in which he confessed to removing a sign with a political slogan from a staff area the Yanggakdo International Hotel. Foreigners are regularly forced to make dramatic, falsified televised confessions in North Korea for relatively minor crimes. Warmier’s was incredibly emotional, and the situation he describes is considered very unlikely:

Warmbier claims in his confession that his actions were backed by the Friendship United Methodist Church, as well as a UVA-affiliated philanthropic organization known as the Z Society, and had “the connivance of the United States Administration.”

“The aim of this crime was to harm the work ethic and motivation of the Korean people. This was a very foolish aim,” Warmbier said.

Warmbier described how the church, with support from the Z Society and the US Central Intelligence Agency, encouraged him to steal the sign as a “trophy.” If he was detained and not returned, the church would pay his family $200,000, he said. The church has not commented except to say the congregation is praying for his return.

Foreign detainees in North Korea often receive long sentences for non-violent crimes, and are used as a diplomatic bargaining chip as the sanction-hit country negotiates with other governments.

Foreigners who have been detained in North Korea have reported a range of experiences. Canadian journalist Laura Ling was detained for 5 months in North Korea, and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor. Most of her stay was spent in a guesthouse with little power or running water, before Bill Clinton helped arrange her release. Robert Park, a Christian missionary who was detained for 43 days, said he was tortured and sexually abused.

Warmbier is now one of three North Americans detained in North Korea. Last December, pastor and businessman Hyeon Soo Lim was sentenced to hard labor for life. The Canadian citizen had made “more than 100 trips” to North Korea throughout his career and had overseen several investments and humanitarian initiatives there. In October, authorities detained Kim Dong Chul, a naturalized American citizen from Korea who had been living in China. The 62-year-old had been conducting business across the China-North Korea border.