15 years' hard labour for US student arrested in North Korea

15 years' hard labour for US student arrested in North Korea
By Seamus Kearney
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Otto Warmbier is accused of trying to steal a banner bearing a propaganda slogan from a hotel

I understand the severity of my crime, and I have no idea what sort of penalty I may face, but I am begging to the Korean people and government for my forgiveness

He was forced to very publicly plea for forgiveness and say he committed a “very severe crime”, but in the end no leniency has been shown to a US student arrested in North Korea.

A sentence of 15 years in prison with hard labour has been handed down to Otto Warmbier, accused of trying to steal a banner bearing a propaganda slogan from a hotel during a visit.

In the past North Korea has been accused of using long jail terms imposed on foreigners as a bargaining tool to try to get around international sanctions and the consequences of its growing isolation.

Westerners held previously in North Korea have said that any confessions given were made under pressure from the state.

When the arrest of Warmbier was first announced in January, Pyongyang described it as a “hostile act” orchestrated by the US government.

Warmbier, from Ohio, was a student at the University of Virginia when he went to North Korea for an organised group tour.

In December Pyonyang jailed for life a Korean-Canadian pastor on charges of subversion.

Paraded before the media

21-year-old Warmbier was paraded before the cameras after his arrest on January 2, just before he was about to board a flight out of the country.

He cried as he read out a purported confession saying he had stolen a political slogan.

“I understand the severity of my crime, and I have no idea what sort of penalty I may face, but I am begging to the Korean people and government for my forgiveness,” he said.

“And I am praying to the heavens so that I may be returned home to my family.”

Some unconfirmed reports in North Korea say Warmbier admitted that he had been offered a prize of a second-hand car if he could bring back a “trophy” to present to an American church.

North Korea’s state news agency KCNA reported that Warmbier had been “arrested for committing anti-DPRK hostile acts” and published the text of his alleged confession.

Responding to his appearance in their first public statement since his detention, the student’s family said they hoped his “sincere apology” would make it possible for the authorities to allow him to come home.

They said the US State Department and Swedish embassy in Pyongyang were working to secure Warmbier’s release.

Group tour goes horribly wrong

The student was on a five-day group-trip organised by Young Pioneer Tours, which specialises in visits to North Korea.

The company describes itself as providing ‘budget tours to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from’.

Warmbier was staying at the Yanggakdo International Hotel on an island in the middle of the Taedong river on a trip over the New Year.

The Independent newspaper quoted a witness claiming Warmbier had been up drinking all the previous night before his 7am flight.


Another version of events was given by an Irish national who said he was on the same plane as the one Warmbier had been due to travel on, adding that he had been part of a young tour party and had been up drinking during the night.

North Korea’s state media said in January that the student’s act had been “tolerated and manipulated by the US government”.

The secretive communist state has a history of detaining foreigners who then “confess” to alleged crimes against the state.

It has used jailed US citizens to secure high-profile diplomatic visits from the United States, with which it has no diplomatic relations.

Pyongyang released three detained Americans in 2014.


The US government strongly recommends against all travel by its citizens to North Korea.

Warmbier is a third-year business student from the University of Virginia. His family live in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Is there any more detail on this hostile act?

Not that much. In his heavily-staged public appearance he confessed to stealing a political slogan from his hotel in Pyongyang. He said, according to local media reports, that he was promised a reward if he brought back the trophy, which he needed because his family was in ‘financial difficulties’.

He said a church member in Wyoming had offered him a used car worth $10,000 (9,100 euros) if he brought back an important political slogan to be hung in the Friendship United Methodist Church as a “trophy,” the official Korean Central News Agency reported.

“She continued to say that by taking this slogan, we would harm the unity and motivation of the North Korean people and show this country an insult from the West,” Warmbier added, according to the news agency.

“I have been very impressed by the Korean government’s humanitarian treatment of severe criminals like myself, and of their very fair and square legal procedures in the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea),” he said.


North Korea said the student traveled to the country as a tourist but with the real aim of destroying the unity of North Korea with “the tacit connivance of the US government.”

“Now you will go to sleep” – an account of a holiday in N.Korea

Some other reaction to the Warmbier sentencing

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