An American student has been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor by North Korea’s totalitarian dictatorship after he allegedly tried to undermine its government by stealing a propaganda sign.
Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia undergraduate who is only 21 years old, was arrested in January while visiting the country as a tourist and accused of trying to make off with a propaganda banner erected at his hotel. While most countries would likely shrug off such a stunt, North Korea is not one of those countries, and Warmbier soon found himself before the country’s highest court facing serious charges.
The 15-year-sentence hasn’t been announced by North Korean media yet, but was reported by China’s Xinhua news agency early Wednesday.
In February, Warmbier made an appearance on KCNA, North Korea’s state television network, where he appeared to confess the deed, saying he had been encouraged by a church group to return from North Korea with a “trophy.” Warmbier also confessed that his stunt had been motivated by a desire to “harm the motivation and work ethic of the Korean people.”
“I entirely beg you, people and government of the DPRK, for your forgiveness,” Warmbier said at the time, in an what appeared to be an emotional appeal. “Please, I’ve made the worst mistake of my life.”
But no forgiveness was forthcoming from the People’s Democratic Republic, which instead decreed that Warmbier must spent the next decade and a half laboring to atone for his foul deed.
According to the BBC, Warmbier’s sentence is unusually high for a Westerner caught up in North Korea’s legal system, which may reflect recently heightened tensions with the West over joint U.S./South Korean military drills, a North Korean nuclear test and new United Nations sanctions.
All hope isn’t lost for Warmbier, though. In 2014, North Korea released several American prisoners after Director of National Intelligence James Clapper made a personal visit to Pyongyang to negotiate their releases. The country has a history of using prisoners as a means for opening negotiations with the U.S., and it may have similar plans for Warmbier.
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