Skip to main Content

North Korea sentences U-Va. student to 15 years of hard labor in prison

  • Author: Anna Fifield
  • Updated: June 24, 2016
  • Published March 16, 2016

SEOUL - The University of Virginia student being held in North Korea was sentenced Wednesday to 15 years in prison with hard labor for trying to steal a propaganda sign from a hotel in Pyongyang.

Otto Warmbier, a 21-year-old from Cincinnati who'd gone to North Korea in a tour group, was convicted after a one-hour trial in the Supreme Court. Video footage showed Warmbier, dressed in the same clothes he was wearing during a highly-choreographed press conference last month, being led into the court room in handcuffs.

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.

"The accused confessed to the serious offense against [North 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 state-run Korean Central News Agency reported Wednesday.

Warmbier was charged with subversion under Article 60 of North Korea's criminal code, the Associated Press reported from Pyongyang. The court held that he had committed a crime "pursuant to the U.S. government's hostile policy toward [the North], in a bid to impair the unity of its people after entering it as a tourist."

North Korea has detained and convicted a number of Americans in recent years and used them as bargaining chips with the United States. Recent detainees include Kenneth Bae, a Korean American missionary who was sentenced to 15 years' hard labor, and was released after 18 months.

Rowan Beard of Young Pioneer Tours, the adventure travel company that took Warmbier to Pyongyang, said that Warmbier's sentence "should be viewed in similar context of previous cases of Americans being sentenced" in North Korea. "We are continuing to work closely with relevant authorities to ensure a speedy and satisfactory outcome for Mr. Warmbier," Beard said in a statement.

Anthony de Bruyn of the University of Virginia said, "The University is aware of the recent media reports regarding Otto Warmbier and remains in touch with his family. We will have no additional comment at this time. "

Warmbier's mother did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

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" that target North Korea's leadership and 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 Jan. 2, at the end of a five-day tour to North Korea. When it announced his detention three weeks later, the North Korean authorities said he was being held for an unspecified "hostile act" against the state.

Warmbier was then brought out to address diplomats and mainly North Korean reporters at a news conference in Pyongyang at the end of February, during which he confessed to a "very severe and pre-planned" crime.

In the wee hours of January 1, he tried to steal a propaganda sign from a staff-only floor of the Yanggakdo International Hotel, one of the main places where foreign tourists stay in Pyongyang. He reportedly pulled the banner from the wall but realized it was too big to carry off, so he abandoned it there.

"The aim of my task was to harm the motivation and work ethic of the Korean people. This was a very foolish aim," Warmbier said, reading from handwritten notes, at the press conference. He described a bizarre plot in which he was directed to steal the sign by a church member, a U-Va student group, and the United States government.

Previous Americans detained in North Korea also have been brought by authorities before the media to "confess" their crimes, with the detainees told what to say and the reporters told what to ask.

Analysts expect that Warmbier also was 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."

Americans are not banned from traveling to North Korea, which has in recent years been promoting tourism and has loosened restrictions on American visitors. But with the increasing number of U.S. citizens running into trouble there, the State Department strongly advises against travel to the country.

Several U.S. citizens have been held in Pyongyang in recent years have been detained in North Korea for activities relating to spreading Christianity, which is banned by the regime, or otherwise running afoul of the regime.

They have been released after high-profile interventions that the regime can use for its domestic propaganda purposes, portraying the visits by officials as Americans coming to pay homage to North Korea.

Former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter have both been to Pyongyang for this reason, and James R. Clapper Jr., the Director of National Intelligence, went to Pyongyang at the end of 2014 to free three Americans being held there.

One of them, 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 a 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 U-Va., 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.