American Otto Warmbier weeks ago had tearfully begged his North Korean captors for forgiveness as he confessed to trying to remove a political banner from a hotel in Pyongyang, the capital.
That request was denied Wednesday as North Korea sentenced the 21-year-old University of Virginia economics student to 15 years of hard labor for “acts against the state,” North Korean state media reported.
Warmbier, a Cincinnati native, was arrested in early January as he prepared to board a flight out of North Korea after traveling to the country as a tourist. He was later accused of trying to remove the banner.
“The accused confessed to the serious offense against the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] he had committed, pursuant to the U.S. government's hostile policy toward it, in a bid to impair the unity of its people after entering it as a tourist,” the Korean Central News Agency said.
Warmbier is the latest in a succession of U.S citizens who have run afoul of North Korean authorities and sent to prison. These travelers committed acts, such as leaving a Bible in a hotel, that would get a traveler no more than a slap on the wrist in most authoritarian countries, but in North Korea, missteps by foreign nationals carry stiffer penalties.
Warmbier held a teary news conference in North Korea last month at which he ostensibly confessed to stealing the banner, saying, “I’ve made the worst mistake of my life” and “I apologize to each and every one of the millions of the Korean people.” Such confessions by detainees in North Korea are generally coerced; former detainees have reported being instructed what to say before the confessions were recorded.
The U.S. State Department strongly discourages Americans from traveling to North Korea, warning that American citizens risk “arrest and long-term detention.”
Young Pioneer Tours, the company that organized Warmbier’s trip, said in a statement Wednesday that it is “continuing to work closely with relevant authorities to ensure a speedy and satisfactory outcome for Mr Warmbier.”
Shortly after Warmbier’s arrest, Young Pioneers said the company was in contact with the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, which handles U.S. consular affairs in North Korea, as the U.S. and North Korea do not have diplomatic relations and there is no U.S. Embassy in Pyongyang.
Warmbier received the same 15-year sentence as Kenneth Bae, a 47-year-old from the Seattle area who was accused of attempting to topple the North Korean state.
Bae was held in North Korea for more than two years then released, along with Matthew Todd Miller of Bakersfield, in 2014 when National Intelligence Director James Clapper flew to North Korea to negotiate their release.
It usually takes a visit by a prominent American for North Korea to agree to release American detainees. Former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter have made such trips.
The ruling comes at a time when North Korea is stepping up its aggressive rhetoric, having recently claimed to be capable of hitting New York City with a nuclear bomb, saying in its state media “all the people there would be killed immediately and the city would burn down to ashes.”
North Korea in recent months has carried out a nuclear test and a long-range rocket launch. In response to those moves, the United Nations enacted additional sanctions meant to cut off North Korea’s sources of outside income.
Pyongyang has stepped up its saber rattling since then, with a string of harshly worded statements and claims to have made key advances in its development of nuclear weapons.
Last week, leader Kim Jong Un said in a state media report that North Korea had acquired reentry technology, an important part of long-range launch capability that allows a missile to travel through space and then reenter the Earth’s atmosphere and strike a target. The reports included photos of Kim next to various missiles and a model of a nuclear warhead. The development of such technology would allow the North far greater range on its ballistic missile launches, and could make it capable of hitting the mainland U.S.
Borowiec is a special correspondent.