(Talk Media News) – An American tourist has been sentenced to up to 15 years in prison with hard labor for attempting to steal a banner with a political slogan from a hotel in Pyongyang, multiple news outlets reported.
University of Virginia student and Ohio native Otto Frederick Warmbier, 21, was visiting North Korea on a trip organized by China-based travel company Young Pioneer Tours. He was apprehended by North Korean authorities on January 2, 2016 as he boarded a plane leaving the country, CNN reported.
“The accused confessed to the serious offense against [North Korea] 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-run Korean Central News Agency (KNCA) reported Wednesday.
Warmbier was charged with “hostile acts against” North Korea.
Diplomats from the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, which represents U.S. interests in North Korea because the U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with the country, were present for the trial.
“On the early morning of January 1, 2016, I committed my crime of taking out the important political slogan from the staff only area of the Yanggakdo International Hotel, aimed at harming the work ethic and the motivation of the Korean people,” Warmbier said during a Feb 29, 2016 press conference in a video posted by the Washington Post. “I understand the severity of my crime.”
North Korea has said Warmbier was encouraged to steal the sign by a member of an Ohio church, a secretive university organization and the CIA.
In 2014, the North cut short the sentences of three Americans detained, releasing Kenneth Bae, Matthew Todd Miller and Jeffrey Fowle. The release of both Bae and Miller was negotiated by national intelligence director James Clapper.
North Korea is currently holding Lim Hyeon-soo, a Korean-Canadian pastor, under a life sentence.
Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson told The New York Times that he met with two North Korean diplomats on Tuesday to lobby for Warmbier’s release. Richardson is a veteran diplomat and a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
The White House said Wednesday that North Korea uses detained U.S. citizens as “pawns for political purposes,” despite asserting otherwise.
“We strongly urge the North Korean government to pardon [Warmbier] and grant him special amnesty,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.
The State Department reiterated Wednesday that it strongly advises against travel to the country.