Today, a 21-year-old University of Virginia student was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea for allegedly attempting to steal a propaganda poster from his Pyongyang hotel room while on a visit to the country. Here’s what we know about the student – and what happened leading up to today’s sentencing.
Otto Warmbier, of Wyoming, Ohio, reportedly said in a tearful statement ahead of the trial in Pyongyang that he tried to steal the poster in exchange for a $10,000 used car.
"I have made the worst mistake of my life," the student said today.
Warmbier was visiting North Korea as part of a tourist group arranged by Young Pioneer Tours, a tour agency based in Xian, China. He was arrested on Jan. 2 at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport on the last day of a five-day tour.
Three weeks later, North Korea announced it was holding Warmbier for a “hostile act” against the state. In late February, in video Reuters says was provided by North Korea’s state news agency and could not be independently verified, Warmbier appeared before the media with a written statement. “I committed my crime,” he said, and asked for forgiveness. It is not known if Warmbier had delivered those statements under duress.
Warmbier said he tried to steal the poster in exchange for a $10,000 used car, the New York Times reported, citing information the North Korean state news media released late last month.
He also said that the Z Society, a secret club at the University of Virginia founded in 1862, promised him membership if he was successful at stealing the poster, according to the New York Times, citing North Korean state media from a press conference on Feb. 29. A member at the Z society at UVA told CNN late last month the organization had never been in contact with Warmbier and that he had never approached them to become a member.
Then, earlier today, Warmbier was convicted of subversion in a one-hour trial and sentenced. 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." It’s unclear what a sentence of hard labor means for Warmbier.
Warmbier is the latest American accused of “hostile acts” to be detained by North Korea. U.S. citizens who have been detained in North Korea in the past have "confessed" to their crimes in front of media reporters, only to recant those statements after their release.
Warmbier’s parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, said in a statement on Feb. 29 that they had been unable to speak with him since he was detained by North Korean police.
The University of Virginia released a statement today saying it is aware of the situation and has been in touch with Warmbier's family. The school said it did not have additional comment at this time.
The U.S. State Department released a statement today saying Warmbier's punishment is "unduly harsh" and that "it’s increasingly clear" that “U.S. citizens arrested in (North Korea) are … used for political purposes”.
"And now that Mr. Warmbier has gone through this criminal process we would urge the DPRK to pardon him and grant him special amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds,” State Department Spokesman Mark Toner said today. He also reiterated that the department strongly advises against all travel to the communist country.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, also released a statement today urging North Korea to release Warmbier, calling his detention "unjustified" and his sentence “an affront to concepts of justice." In addition, he called on the Obama administration to “redouble its efforts to secure his release."