SEOUL: North Korea on Wednesday sentenced an American student, who had admitted to stealing a propaganda banner from a hotel, to 15 years hard labor for subversive activities, state media said.
The sentence was handed down on Otto Warmbier, a 21-year-old student from the University of Virginia, by North Korea’s Supreme Court, the North’s official KCNA news agency said.
KCNA said Warmbier had been arrested on charges of “hostile acts” against the state and had been convicted under an article of the criminal code dealing with subversion.
“In the course of the inquiry, the accused confessed to the serious offence,” it said, without elaborating.
The sentence was handed down just hours after veteran US diplomat Bill Richardson reportedly met with two diplomats from North Korea’s UN office to press for Warmbier’s release.
Warmbier was arrested in early January as he was leaving the country with a tour group. He later said he had removed a political banner from the staff-only area of the Pyongyang hotel where the group had stayed.
His detention came at a sensitive time, as the United States took a leading role in securing the tough sanctions that the UN Security Council imposed earlier this month on North Korea over its nuclear test on January 6 and long-range rocket launch a month later.
In recent weeks, Pyongyang has maintained a daily barrage of nuclear strike threats against both Seoul and Washington, ostensibly over ongoing, large-scale South Korea-US military drills that the North sees as provocative rehearsals for invasion.
In announcing the jail sentence, KCNA stated that Warmbier had committed his offence “pursuant to the US government’s hostile policy” towards North Korea.
In the past, North Korea has used the detention of US citizens to obtain high-profile visits from the likes of former US president Bill Clinton in order to secure their release.
According to the New York Times, Tuesday’s meeting between Richardson and the two North Korean diplomats took place at a hotel near the UN headquarters in New York.
“I urged the humanitarian release of Otto, and they agreed to convey our request,” Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico, told the newspaper.
Richardson has traveled to North Korea several times over the years on diplomatic missions that have included securing the release of other arrested Americans.
The United States has no diplomatic or consular relations with the North, and the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang provides limited consular services to US citizens detained there.
Warmbier is one of three North Americans currently detained in North Korea, which recently sentenced a 60-year-old Canadian pastor to life imprisonment with hard labour on sedition charges.
The US State Department “strongly recommends against all travel” to North Korea and specifically warns of the risk of arrest.
Detained foreigners are often required to make a public, officially-scripted acknowledgement of wrongdoing, and Warmbier was paraded in front of reporters and diplomats in Pyongyang last month.
Footage of the carefully orchestrated event showed a sobbing Warmbier pleading to be released and saying he had made “the worst mistake of my life”.
Warmbier said he had been tasked with stealing the banner by a member of the Friendship United Methodist Church in Wyoming, Ohio, who wanted it “as a trophy” and offered him a used car worth $10,000 if he succeeded.
Political slogans extolling the achievements of the country and its leaders and encouraging citizens to work harder and demonstrate their loyalty are pervasive in North Korea.
They can be seen on the streets and in nearly every public building, as well as every work unit.