An undergraduate at the University of Virginia, Otto F. Warmbier, was sentenced on Wednesday to 15 years of prison and hard labor in North Korea.
The conviction came after a one hour-trial through during which Warmbier, 21, sat silently with his head down and hands shackled. Warmbier traveled to North Korea as part of a tour group. He was detained on January 2nd after state authorities caught him trying to steal a political poster from a wall in his hotel room. Laura Wagner of NPR reports that his detention was not made public until February.
North Korean state media accused Warmbier of intending to bring down “the foundations of its [the state’s] single-minded unity.” According to North Korean sources, the CIA, a secretive campus society known as “Z society,” and a member of an Ohio church encouraged Warmbier to commit the “hostile act.” By any stretch of the imagination, Warmbier’s attempted theft of a poster would have amounted to no more than a petty offense in any other country.
Last month, Warmbier pleaded for his release at a news conference in Pyongyang and admitted that stealing the poster was “the worst mistakes of my life.” He also issued a statement that analysts believe he was coerced to make, saying that a church member from the United Methodist Church in Wyoming, Ohio had offered to buy him a car in exchange for the poster.
Additionally, the profits garnered from the poster were going to be used to aid his family, “suffering from very severe financial difficulties.” Many detainees under North Korean auspices are forced to confess crimes and make apologies regardless of their veracity.
Tiffany Ap of CNN notes that former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who is also a former Democratic presidential candidate, met with two North Korean diplomats to lobby for Warmbier’s release. Richardson is a longtime diplomat who has negotiated previous releases of Americans detained in North Korea, and he signaled that the sentence should not be taken at face value, offering hope to those stateside anxious for Warmbier’s return.
Warmbier’s sentence was roundly criticized by American human rights groups and prominent politicians, including President Obama and Governor John Kasich, one of the few remaining Republican presidential candidates. He released a statement saying the sentence in Pyongyang was “completely unjustified” and “an affront to concepts of justice.”
Reporters from the New York Times note that Warmbier’s punishment is part of a larger series of penalties being brought up against American tourists, missionaries, and journalists in recent years. These harmless offenses, such as leaving a Bible behind in a hotel room, are deemed “anti-state crimes” by the North Korean government.
The U.S. State Department accused North Korea of politicizing arrests of American citizens, saying, “It’s increasingly clear from its very public treatment of these cases.” Accordingly, the State Department strongly discourages Americans from traveling to North Korea, though it is not illegal to do so. The continued holding of Warmbier seems poised to further alienate North Korea from the international community.