SEOUL – An American student, who was detained for two months in North Korea, has been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for attempting to steal a political propaganda poster from a hotel in Pyongyang, where he was staying, state media reported.
Otto Frederick Warmbier, a 21-year-old-student at the University of Virginia in the United States, was sentenced by the North Korean Supreme Court to hard labor after he admitted his “crime” in a public confession that may have been forced by the North Korean authorities.
North Korea had arrested American citizens in the past in order to spark political negotiations with Washington, as the two countries currently have no diplomatic relations, and the prisoners were released following negotiations between North Korean and U.S. representatives.
Human Rights Watch, or HRW, described the ruling as “outrageous and shocking” and urged Pyongyang to “recognize the student’s self-admitted mistake as a misdemeanor offense that it would be in most countries, and release him on humanitarian grounds,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW’s Asia chapter in a statement.
The conviction comes at a time of high tension between North Korea and the international community, after harsh sanctions were imposed against the country following the nuclear and missiles tests it carried out in January and February respectively.
Since then the regime of Kim Jong-un has justified its missiles and nuclear weapons program and has threatened the U.S. and South Korea with “pre-emptive strikes.”
Although a short-term reprieve is difficult due to the strained relations between the two countries, Warmbier will probably be released in the future, as it happened with others who were detained previously.
The student, who had entered the country as a tourist, is one of the three citizens from Western countries – the other two being Hyeon Soo-lim, a Protestant pastor born in Canada who received a life sentence and Kim Dong-chul, a South Korean born American – currently detained in North Korea, for allegedly committing acts against the regime of Kim Jong-un.