Otto Warmbier is not a U.S. spy. But North Korea’s highest court – where judges are appointed directly by the ruling political authority of the Workers’ Party of Korea – found differently, and convicted the 21-year-old from Ohio to 15 years of hard labor in a prison camp. His crime? The University of Virginia undergraduate stole a political poster as a souvenir.
According to The Associated Press on March 16, Warmbier was “charged with subversion under Article 60 of North Korea’s criminal code.” According to the Pyongyang court, Otto committed a crime “pursuant to the U.S. government’s hostile policy toward the North, in a bid to impair the unity of its people after entering it as a tourist.”
Stealing the banner was grounds for the charges of “subverting the government.” Warmbier was arrested in late January when he attempted to leave the country. After his arrest, officials said he maliciously committed the anti-state crime with “the tacit connivance of the U.S. government and under its manipulation” and that the student visitor had the intent of “bringing down the foundation of [the government’s] single-minded unity.”
The court never showed how it was that the government of the United States was ostensibly connected to the fact Warmbier tried to pilfer a banner, but paranoid North Korea hotheads regularly accuse the US and South Korea of sending in spies in an attempt to destabilize the totalitarian dictatorship which attempts to pass itself off as a self-reliant socialist state.
Although travel to North Korea is legal, the U.S. State Department strongly recommends against it.
According to their website, there is a strong “risk of arrest and long-term detention due to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s inconsistent application of its criminal laws.” The State Department says U.S. citizens “have been subject to arrest and long-term detention for actions that would not be cause for arrest in the United States or other countries,” and stresses that “authorities may fine or arrest travelers for exchanging currency with an unauthorized vendor, for taking unauthorized photographs, or for shopping at stores not designated for foreigners.”
Warmbier was traveling with the Young Pioneer Tours, an agency specializing in tourism to North Korea. During his brief, one-hour trial this week, Otto was convicted and sentenced to 15 years prison labor.
According to the NY Times, Warmbier “sobbed and pleaded for his release at a government-arranged news conference in Pyongyang, where he admitted stealing the poster and said that the church member had offered to buy him a used car worth $10,000 in exchange. ‘I made the worst mistake of my life,’ Mr. Warmbier said.”
Warmbier also said that if he was caught and detained, his family would receive $200,000 from the U.S. government, and that he accepted the offer because his family was “suffering from very severe financial difficulties.” He also claimed he was acting on behalf of the University of Virginia’s semi-secret “Z Society.”
It’s common for individuals to recant such statements if and when they are released however; oftentimes North Korea officials leverage a threat of harsher sentencing in order to demand public confessions are made.
The United States does not maintain diplomatic or consular relations with North Korea, muddying attempts to secure the release of U.S. citizens accused of running afoul of North Korea’s strict interpretation of its laws.
Otto Warmbier was remanded over to North Korea prison officials and does not have any appeal provisions.