An American man sentenced to 15 years hard labor in North Korea for attempting to steal a propaganda poster has not been permitted consular access in nearly six months, the U.S. State Department confirmed Wednesday.
Otto Warmbier, a 21-year-old college student at the University of Virginia, was detained in January as he prepared to leave North Korea at the end of a tour. He was sentenced in March for swiping the poster and for other unspecified “crimes against the state.”
Washington has criticized the sentence as “unduly harsh.”
In a statement, U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said that an official from the Swedish Embassy, which represents American interests in the country, last visited Warmbier nearly six months ago.
“Even when requested by the Swedish Embassy, however, the DPRK still routinely delays or denies consular access to U.S. citizens,” the statement, released Tuesday, said. “Representatives from the Swedish Embassy have not been granted consular access to Mr. Warmbier since the visit on March 2.”
The Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang is the so-called protecting power for U.S. citizens, providing limited emergency consular services for Americans traveling or working in North Korea.
Arnold Fang, a Hong Kong-based researcher with Amnesty International said that international human rights law maintains that all people be given a fair trial process when convicted.
He said Amnesty considers this to include prompt access to consular services for those convicted outside their country.
“Three months without consular access is a violation of the right to equality before the law,” Fang said.
The news comes amid growing concern over what experts have said is considerable progress in the North’s weapons program and its quest to develop nuclear-tipped missiles.
In January, North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear explosion and has followed it up with a series of missile tests that have flown higher and for longer than before despite ratcheted-up United Nations sanctions. Just last week, it also racked up a major success with the test-firing of a submarine-launched ballistic missile.
Kirby told a news conference Wednesday that Washington is concerned that the case could be used as a political tool amid the tense environment.
“Despite official claims that U.S. citizens arrested in the DPRK are not used for political purposes, it’s increasingly clear from its very public treatment of these cases that the DPRK does just that,” he said, using the acronym for the country’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Kirby urged the North to pardon Warmbier, give him a special amnesty and immediately release him on humanitarian grounds. However, he said he was unaware of any signals that such a move was imminent.
Daniel Pinkston, an East Asia expert at Troy University in Seoul, said that while the charges, conviction and punishment are likely consistent with what a North Korean citizen would be facing in similar circumstances, Pyongyang would free him for the right price.
“But I don’t think they are desperately seeking a deal with the U.S. to release him,” Pinkston said. “His detention sends an internal message as well — no one is above the law, even though most outsiders would disagree with the DPRK system of justice and many aspects of the legal code.”
Pyongyang has a long history of detaining U.S. citizens, with many ultimately being freed after negotiations with American luminaries and high-ranking officials, including former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and current Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
Pinkston, however, said similar negotiations were unlikely at this point in the Warmbier case, which he said takes place against a different background than the prior instances.
“I don’t see the possibility of issue-linkage in this case whereby the DPRK would gain some advantage or benefit in the bilateral relationship with the U.S.,” Pinkston said.
“I think his prospects for release at this time are not good,” he added. “Unless there is some change, and the DPRK leadership believes it can improve its image or gain some other benefit by releasing him, they are unlikely to do so.”
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