YOUNG VOICES

North Korea: US Student Otto Warmbier Jailed For 15 Years With Hard Labour For Stealing Banner

16/03/2016 08:51 GMT | Updated 16/03/2016 11:59 GMT

North Korea's highest court sentenced an American tourist to 15 years in prison with hard labour on Wednesday for attempting to steal a propaganda banner.

Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia undergraduate, was convicted and sentenced for subversion in a one-hour trial in North Korea's Supreme Court.

The court held that he had committed a crime "pursuant to the US government's hostile policy toward (the North), in a bid to impair the unity of its people after entering it as a tourist", the Associated Press reported.

otto warmbier

US college student Otto Warmbier has been sentenced to 15 years in North Korea

North Korea regularly accuses Washington and Seoul of sending spies to overthrow its government to enable the US-backed South Korean government to take control of the Korean Peninsula.

Tensions are particularly high following North Korea's recent nuclear test and rocket launch, and massive joint military exercises now underway between the US and South Korea that the North sees as a dress rehearsal for invasion.

Before the trial, the 21-year-old from Wyoming, Ohio, said he had tried to steal a propaganda banner as a trophy for an acquaintance who wanted to hang it in her church. That would be grounds in North Korea for a subversion charge.

Trials for foreigners facing similar charges in North Korea are generally short and punishments severe. Warmbier, who was in North Korea with a New Year's tour group, was arrested as he tried to leave the country in early January.

US tourism to North Korea is legal, but the US State Department advises against it even though arrests of tourists are rare.

Further complicating matters, Washington and Pyongyang do not have diplomatic relations. The Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang acts as a go-between in consular issues when US citizens run afoul of North Korean authorities.

North Korea announced Warmbier's arrest in late January, saying he committed an anti-state crime with "the tacit connivance of the US government and under its manipulation." It remains unclear how the US government was allegedly connected to Warmbier's actions.

Warmbier had been staying at the Yanggakdo International Hotel. It is common for sections of tourist hotels to be reserved for North Korean staff and off-limits to foreigners.

In a tearful statement made before his trial, Warmbier told reporters in Pyongyang he tried to take the banner as a trophy for the mother of a friend who said she wanted to put it up in her church.

He said he was offered a used car worth $10,000 (£7,015) if he could get a banner and was also told that if he was detained and didn't return, $200,000 (£140,301) would be paid to his mother in the form of a charitable donation.

Warmbier said he accepted the offer because his family was "suffering from very severe financial difficulties".

He was also quoted as saying it was the "worst mistake" of my life.

SEE ALSO

Warmbier also said he had been encouraged by the university's "Z Society," which he said he was trying to join. The magazine of the university's alumni association describes the Z Society as a "semi-secret ring society" founded in 1892 that conducts philanthropy, puts on honorary dinners and grants academic awards.

In previous cases, people who have been detained in North Korea and made a public confession often recant those statements after their release.

In the past, North Korea has held out until senior US officials or statesmen came to personally bail out detainees, all the way up to former President Bill Clinton, whose visit in 2009 secured the freedom of American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling.

In November 2014, US spy chief James Clapper went to Pyongyang to bring home Matthew Miller, who had ripped up his visa when entering the country, and Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae, who had been incarcerated since November 2012.

Jeffrey Fowle, another US tourist from Ohio detained for six months at about the same time as Miller, was released just before that and was sent home on a US government plane.

Fowle left a Bible in a local club hoping a North Korean would find it, which is considered a criminal offense in North Korea.

Otto Warmbier jailed for 15 years