SEOUL – North Korea on Wednesday sentenced an American student, who had admitted to stealing propaganda material, to 15 years hard labor for crimes against the state, China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported.
The sentence was handed down on Otto Warmbier, a 21-year-old student from the University of Virginia, by North Korea’s Supreme Court, Xinhua said in a brief dispatch datelined Pyongyang.
There was no immediate confirmation by North Korean state media of the sentence, which appeared to come just hours after veteran U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson reportedly met with two diplomats from North Korea’s U.N. office to press for Warmbier’s release.
Warmbier was arrested in early January as he was leaving the country. He later said he had removed a political banner from the staff-only area of the Pyongyang hotel being used by his tour group.
His detention came at a sensitive time, as the United States took a leading role in securing the tough sanctions that the U.N. Security Council imposed earlier this month on North Korea over its nuclear test on Jan. 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-U.S. military drills that the North sees as provocative rehearsals for invasion.
Warmbier had entered North Korea as part of a New Year tour organized by China-based Young Pioneer Tours. He was arrested when the group was set to return to Beijing on Jan. 2.
The United States has no diplomatic or consular relations with the North, and the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang provides limited consular services to U.S. 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 labor on sedition charges.
In the past, North Korea has used the detention of U.S. citizens to obtain high-profile visits from the likes of former U.S. President Bill Clinton in order to secure their release.
According to The New York Times, Tuesday’s meeting between Bill Richardson and the two North Korean diplomats took place at a hotel near the U.N. headquarters in New York.
“I urged the humanitarian release of Otto, and they agreed to convey our request,” 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.
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 event showed a sobbing Warmbier pleading to be released and saying he had made “the worst mistake” of his life.
According to the North’s state media, 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 all-pervasive in North Korea.
They can be seen on the streets and in nearly every public building, as well as every work unit.