On Tuesday, North Korea’s highest court sentenced UVa Third Year Otto Warmbier to 15 years hard labor after he allegedly attempted to steal a propaganda banner from a Pyongyang hotel. In a one-hour trial, the North Korean Supreme Court charged Warmbier with subversion.
The Ohio native was arrested on January 2nd after spending five days in North Korea over New Year’s. The North Korean state-run media announced Warmbier’s detention in a January 20th press conference, saying he was arrested for colluding with the FBI, a Unitarian church in his hometown, and UVa’s Z Society to perpetrate a “hostile act” against the state.
In a February 29th news conference, Warmbier publicly admitted to the crime in a two-minute, scripted statement. North Korean officials claim the conference was held “at his own request,” but it is unknown whether the confession was coerced. In the video of his speech, Warmbier is visibly distraught as he pleads for forgiveness and bows deeply in apology.
“I never, never should have allowed myself to be lured by the United States administration to commit a crime in this country,” Warmbier said. “I wish that the United States administration never manipulate people like myself in the future to commit crimes against foreign countries. I entirely beg you, the people and government of the DPRK, for your forgiveness. Please! I made the worst mistake of my life.”
Warmbier’s confession led to an expedited criminal hearing where he received the lengthy sentence. Despite the verdict, US officials are still working to secure his release. This process, however, is complicated by the absence of diplomatic relations between the US and North Korea. The Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang represents American interests in North Korea and is working closely with the State Department to bring Warmbier home.
Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson told the New York Times that he met with two North Korean diplomats on Tuesday to lobby for Warmbier’s release. Richardson, a former US ambassador to the United Nations, remains optimistic that the results will be similar to the previous cases of US citizens sentenced in North Korea. In 2014, two Americans detained for perpetrating hostile acts were released far before their sentences expired—Matthew Miller served less than a year of his 6-year sentence and Kenneth Bae was held for two years instead of 15.