US student sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour in North Korea for attempting to steal a sign

By @chelean on
Otto Warmbier
U.S. student Otto Warmbier cries at court in an undisclosed location in North Korea, in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on March 16, 2016. North Korea's supreme court sentenced Warmbier, a 21-year-old University of Virginia student, who was arrested while visiting the country, to 15 years of hard labour on Wednesday for crimes against the state. Reuters/KCNA

An American student has been sentenced to 15 years of hard labour in North Korea for trying to steal a propaganda sign. 21-year-old Otto Warmbier admitted he tried to steal the sign from his hotel in January as a “trophy” from his trip.

The University of Virginia student entered the reclusive nation over the New Year’s holiday on a tourist visa. He was arrested on Jan. 2 at Pyongyang’s international airport following a five-day trip, the travel agency that arranged his travel told the Washington Post. Korean Central News Agency reported his arrest three weeks later, saying Warmbier was being questioned for taking part in an “anti-state activity.”

According to KCNA, he had perpetrated a “hostile act” against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), entering the country in “the guise of tourist for the purpose of bringing down the foundation of its single-minded unity at the tacit connivance of the US government and under its manipulation.”

He was convicted by the Supreme Court under a criminal code article on subversion, BBC reports. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labour, which, BBC correspondent in South Korea, Stephen Evans, said was high compared to other foreigners in the past. Evans surmised that the high sentence could be due to the tensions between North Korea and the US at the moment.

The slogan he apparently tried to steal was on a staff-only floor of the Yanggakdo hotel. It was said he pulled the banner from the wall but, as it was too big to carry off, he left it there.

In a news conference in February, Warmbier admitted to the “very severe and pre-planned” crime, tearfully asking for forgiveness from the nation.

“The aim of my task was to harm the motivation and work ethic of the Korean people. This was a very foolish aim,” he read from a note. The clip from the Associated Press sees the young man tearfully explaining his action, calling it the “worst mistake” of his life. He added he was used and manipulated by the United States administration. He also claimed he was instructed by a female member of a Methodist church in his home state of Ohio to steal a propaganda sign from the country as a “trophy.”

That church member would apparently give him a used car worth US$10,000 (AU$13,200) if he stole the sign and would pay his mother US$200,000 (AU$263,400) to his mother if he was arrested. Warmbier said his family was facing “very severe” financial issues, and stealing the sign was his “golden opportunity” to help his family.

He then performed a deep bow to prove his sincerity.

Analysts doubt Warmbier wanted to confess to the crime, though. He was probably told what to say as such confessions are repeated played on North Korean television for domestic propaganda purposes. Detainees often retracted their confessions once they were out of North Korea.

The US Department of State previously said it was aware of Warmbier’s arrest. It gave no further information.

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