SEOUL — The University of Virginia student being held in North Korea was sentenced Wednesday to 15 years of hard labor for trying to steal a propaganda sign from a hotel in Pyongyang.
Otto Warmbier, a 21-year-old from Cincinnati, Ohio, was convicted after a one-hour trial at North Korea’s Supreme Court, China’s Xinhua news agency, which has a bureau in Pyongyang, reported Wednesday. Japan’s Kyodo News and the Associated Press also reported the verdict. Diplomats from the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, which represents American interests in North Korea because the United States does not have diplomatic relations with the country, were present at the trial.
North Korea’s state media had not commented on the case by 2 p.m. local time.
Warmbier is being held at a particularly sensitive time, when annual military drills between the United States and South Korea are coinciding with international sanctions against North Korea’s regime to punish it for its recent nuclear test and missile launches.
North Korea always protests the joint military drills in South Korea because it sees them as a pretext for an invasion, but Pyongyang’s reaction is particularly ferocious this year because the allies are practicing “decapitation strikes” on North Korea’s leadership and taking out its nuclear and missile facilities.
Furthermore, the sanctions imposed by the United Nations, coupled with direct measures taken by the United States, Japan and South Korea, are the toughest yet and could inflict a significant amount of pain on the North Korean regime.
Warmbier, an economics major, was arrested at Pyongyang airport on January 2, at the end of a five-day tour to North Korea. But it wasn’t until three weeks later that Kim Jong Un’s regime announced it was holding the Ohio native for an unspecified “hostile act” against the state.
Then at the end of February, the North Korean authorities brought Warmbier out for a highly orchestrated press conference in Pyongyang, at which the student confessed to a “very severe and pre-planned” crime.
Reading from hand-written notes, Warmbier said that he had tried to steal a political sign promoting “the [North] Korean people’s love for their system” from the hotel, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.
“The aim of my task was to harm the motivation and work ethic of the Korean people. This was a very foolish aim,” Warmbier told the mainly North Korean reporters. He was wearing a beige jacket with a shirt and tie, and was clean shaven.
Previous Americans who have been detained in North Korea have also been brought out to the press to “confess” their crimes, with the detainees told what to say and the reporters told what to ask.
Analysts expect that Warmbier was also directed in this way to deliver the statement, in which the student said he was impressed by North Korea’s “humanitarian treatment of severe criminals like myself.”
Warmbier went on a trip organized by Young Pioneers Tours, one of a handful of travel companies that takes adventurous tourists into North Korea, while on his way to Hong Kong for a financial course for his studies.
Several United States citizens have been held in Pyongyang in recent years, usually because of activities relating to Christianity, and have also been sentenced to hard labor.
North Korea tries to use them as bargaining chips and releases them after high-profile interventions which it can then use for its domestic propaganda purposes, portraying the visits as Americans coming to pay homage to North Korea.
Former president Bill Clinton went to Pyongyang to secure the release of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee in 2009, while Jimmy Carter traveled to the North Korean capital the following year to collect Aijalon Gomes, a Boston man who entered the country illegally.
More recently, James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, went to Pyongyang at the end of 2014 to free three Americans being held there.
One of them, Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American missionary, had been sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor for “hostile acts against the republic,” including proselytizing and attempting to overthrow the regime. Bae’s sister described how he was having to do manual work on a farm for eight hours a day, six days per week.
Another, Matthew Miller from California, had been sentenced to six years’ hard labor after ripping up his tourist visa on arrival in North Korea.
At the University of Virginia, Warmbier was selected as an Echols scholar, a special four-year academic program for fewer than 250 students in each class. Those chosen are described as “intellectual risk-takers” who have shown “academic excellence, intellectual leadership, and evidence of the ability to grapple with complex topics,” according to the university’s website.