On Friday morning, North Korea’s state-run media announced that University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier has been arrested for allegedly perpetrating an unspecified “hostile act” against the state. The 21 year-old third year was detained on January 2nd at the Pyongyang airport as he attempted to leave the country.
North Korea’s central news agency released a one-sentence statement saying that Warmbier came to the country as a tourist but harbored the intent of destroying the unity of North Korea with “the tacit connivance of the US government.”
An Echols Scholar in the Comm School, Warmbier is a self-proclaimed world traveler who frequently visits daring locations. He spent five days in North Korea over New Year’s, which was coordinated by the Young Pioneer Tour Group. The China-based company, which arranges travel to North Korea, confirmed that their client had been detained. Warmbier was traveling on his own prior to participating in a study abroad program.
In an email to the McIntire School of Commerce student body, Dean Carl Zeithaml informed students of their classmate’s detention. He asked students to refrain from speaking to the media given the sensitivity of the situation. The university will not release an official statement at this time, at the request of the Warmbier family.
Both the State Department and the US Embassy in Seoul, South Korea are aware of Warmbier’s detention and are working to resolve the situation as quickly as possible. The United States has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, so US citizens’ interests are protected by the Swedish Embassy. Warmbier is the third Westerner currently known to be detained in North Korea, all on suspicion of spying.
His arrest comes at an especially tense time for US-Korean relations as the hostile nation conducted its fourth nuclear test earlier this month, sparking international condemnation. The UN Security Council is working on a tough sanctions resolution against North Korea in response. Officials are speculating that Pyongyang will use its Western detainees as bargaining chips to soften these punishments.