SEOUL: An American student arrested in North Korea has admitted to stealing propaganda material at the behest of a US Methodist church and with the encouragement of a secret university society, state media reported Monday.
The North’s official KCNA news agency said Otto Frederick Warmbier, who was arrested in early January as he was leaving the country, had given an “interview” Monday with domestic and foreign journalists in Pyongyang.
In an opening statement quoted by KCNA, the 21-year-old student from the University of Virginia said he had removed a political slogan from the staff-only area of the Pyongyang hotel being used by his tour group.
In a video clip distributed by CNN, a sobbing Warmbier said he had made “the worst mistake of my life” and pleaded to be released.
The clip showed Warmbier, his head bowed and wearing a suit and tie, being marched into a room by two North Korean guards.
According to KCNA, Warmbier said a member of the Friendship United Methodist Church back home who wanted it “as a trophy” had tasked him with stealing the slogan.
The member — the mother of a friend of Warmbier’s — had promised him a used car worth $10,000 if he succeeded, the agency said.
“The aim of my task was to harm the motivation and work ethic of the Korean people. This was a very foolish aim,” he was quoted as saying.
Foreigners detained in North Korea are often required to make a public, scripted acknowledgement of wrongdoing as a first step towards a possible release.
Political slogans, extolling the achievements of the country and its leaders and encouraging citizens to work harder and demonstrate their loyalty, are all-pervasive in North Korea.
They can be seen on the streets and in nearly every public building, as well as every work unit.
According to KCNA, the slogan removed by Warmbier was aimed at inspiring “the Korean people’s love for their system.”
In its original announcement of Warmbier’s arrest, North Korea said he had engaged in a “hostile act” with the connivance of the US government.
His detention came at a sensitive time, with the United States taking a leading role in efforts to secure tough international sanctions on North Korea over its latest nuclear test.
According to KCNA, Warmbier said he had been encouraged in his mission by the secretive “Z Society” at the University of Virginia, which had promised him membership if he succeeded.