White House Urges North Korea to Release US Tourist Sentenced to Hard Labor

PHOTO: American student Otto Warmbier, center, is escorted at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang, North Korea, March 16, 2016.PlayJon Chol Jin/AP Photo
WATCH White House Urges North Korea to Release American Tourist

The White House today urged North Korea to pardon and release 21-year-old Otto Warmbier, who was sentenced today to 15 years hard labor in a North Korean prison.

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“Now that Mr. Warmbier has gone through this criminal process, we strongly urge the North Korean government to pardon him and grant him special amnesty and immediate release,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said during today's White House briefing.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the department "believes that the sentence is unduly harsh for the actions Mr. Warmbier allegedly took."

"Despite official claims that U.S. citizens arrested in the DPRK are not used for political purposes, it’s increasingly clear from its very public treatment of these cases that the DPRK does exactly that," Toner said, referring to North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Warmbier, a student at the University of Virginia, was convicted of attempting to steal a propaganda banner at a hotel he was staying at while on vacation in Pyongyang. The 21-year-old reportedly wanted the sign at a restricted area "as a trophy" for a friend's mother.

"The allegations for which this individual was arrested and imprisoned would not give rise to arrest or imprisonment in the United States or in just about any other country in the world," Earnest said.

The State Department additionally cautioned American citizens against traveling to North Korea.

"The Department of State strongly recommends against all travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea. Let me just repeat that again. The United States and the Department of State strongly recommends against all travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea," Toner said.

Warmbier, a native of Cincinnati, Ohio, was arrested at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport on Jan. 2 on the last of a five-day tour arranged by Young Pioneer Tours, a tour agency based in Xian, China.

ABC News' Joohee Cho contributed to this report.