U.S. student to 15 years of hard labor in N. Korea for ‘college-style prank’

Special to WorldTribune.com

An American tourist, accused of attempting to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel room, has been sentenced by a North Korean court to 15 years of hard labor.

Otto Warmbier, a 21-year-old University of Virginia student who was arrested while visiting the country in January, was sentenced on March 16 for crimes against the state.

Otto Warmbier said in February that he had made "the worst mistake of my life." /Reuters
Otto Warmbier said in February that he had made “the worst mistake of my life.” /Reuters

Warmbier was detained for allegedly trying to steal an item bearing a propaganda slogan from his hotel in Pyongyang, North Korean media reported.

“The accused confessed to the serious offense against the DPRK 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-controlled KCNA news agency reported.

Warmbier’s defense attorney said the gravity of his crime was such that he would not be able to pay, even with his death, but proposed to the court a sentence reduced from the prosecution’s request of a life sentence, KCNA said.

Human Rights Watch condemned the sentence: “North Korea’s sentencing of Otto Warmbier to 15 years hard labor for a college-style prank is outrageous and shocking, and should not be permitted to stand,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW’s Asia division, said in an emailed statement.

Warmbier was forced at a staged media conference in Pyongyang last month to admit his alleged crime was “very severe and pre-planned” and said that it was “the worst mistake of my life.”

North Korea, which has no formal diplomatic relations with the United States, has in the past used jailed Americans in to extract high-profile visits from U.S. officials.

North Korea in December sentenced a Korean-Canadian Christian pastor to hard labor for life after charging him with subversion. The North is also holding a Korean-American and three South Korean nationals.