An American university student has been sentenced to 15 years hard labour by North Korean authorities for stealing a sign.
Otto Warmbier, a 21 year old undergraduate at the University of Virginia (UVA), was first detained by the rogue state on January 2 of this year.
He’d been visiting the country with Young Pioneer Tours, a travel agency based in China which specialises in taking foreign tourists on visits round the notoriously isolated country, the Associated Press reports.
On February 29th, Warmbier confessed on live television to removing a sign with a political slogan from a staff area the Yanggakdo International Hotel. Foreigners in North Korea are regularly forced to make false televised confessions for relatively minor crimes.
Warmier was near tears during his incredibly emotional ‘confession’, and the situation he describes seems very unlikely.
In the rather fantastical confession he claims his 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 explained that he was encouraged to steal the sign as a ‘trophy’ by the Z Society and the CIA, before claiming that his family would be paid $200,000 by the church if he was caught committing the crime. The church has not commented except to say the congregation is praying for his return.
North Korea often punishes foreign detainees with extremely long sentences for non-violent crimes, because they’re valuable as diplomatic bargaining chips for the sanction-hit country to use as leverage in negotiations with other governments.
Foreign prisoners have reported a range of experiences while detained in the country. The Canadian journalist Laura Ling, who was detained for 5 months in North Korea, after being sentenced to 12 years of hard labour, and spent most of her stay in a guest house with little power or running water, before Bill Clinton arranged her release.
Meanwhile Robert Park, a Christian missionary who was detained for 43 days, claimed he had been tortured and sexually abused.
Warmbier is one of three North Americans currently detained in North Korea. Last December, pastor and businessman Hyeon Soo Lim was sentenced to hard labour for life.
The Canadian citizen had made ‘more than 100 trips’ to North Korea throughout his career and had worked on several investments and humanitarian initiatives there.
In October, authorities also 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.