North Korea has sentenced University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier to 15 years in prison with hard labor for trying to steal a propaganda sign from a Pyongyang hotel.
The 21-year-old economics major was arrested for committing a "hostile act" at the end of a five-day tour in North Korea, a stopover on his way to a financial course in Hong Kong, part of his U-Va studies.
The North Korean authorities paraded Warmbier before the media and broadcast his tearful confession — which experts say was most likely forced — before conducting a one-hour show trial.
Korean American Kim Dong-chul is also being held on allegations of spying, while Korean Canadian pastor Lim Hyeon-soo is serving a life sentence.
North Korea has detained a number of Americans in recent years and sentenced them to long terms in jail with hard labor. But they have not had to serve out their sentences. Instead, each one has been released after a visit to Pyongyang by a high-profile American official, which is used by North Korea for its domestic propaganda purposes. As in: look at this important American who has come to pay homage to our system.
But American government efforts to free Warmbier are still at a very early stage and have not even advanced to discussions about who could visit Pyongyang, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.
Plus, North Korea is holding a much-vaunted Workers' Party Congress at the beginning of May, so some analysts suggest that Kim Jong Un's regime would want to delay any official American visit until closer to that time. ("Look at this important American who's come to pay homage to our system.")
So, what kind of conditions is Warmbier being held in? We try to find some answers.
North Korea is notorious for its brutal forced labor camps. Is this poor kid in one of these?
Yes, North Korea runs a vast security state designed to keep people scared. In its latest report, Human Rights Watch described how North Koreans accused of serious political offenses are usually sent, along with their entire families, to labor camps, known as kwalli-so in Korean. There, they receive very little food, are subjected to mistreatment and torture, and can be forced to do backbreaking work at logging, mining and agricultural sites. But Warmbier, as a foreigner, will not be held in one of these camps.
So where is he?
Well, it's North Korea, so we don't know. But Jeffrey Fowle, an Ohio man, was arrested in 2014 for hiding a Bible in the bathroom of a seaman's club, though he was never convicted or sentenced. In a long piece on the Atavist website, Fowle described being held first of all in a room on the 36th floor of the Yanggakdo Hotel, the same hotel where Warmbier was staying and where the sign incident allegedly took place. He was not shackled but was guarded at all times. He had a television but a worker tinkered with it so it broadcast only North Korean channels. Later, he was moved to a guesthouse where he was kept in a bedroom with an outer anteroom. He was left alone for hours a day and was told not to cross the threshold into the anteroom, although he was allowed to walk outside with a guard. Meals comprised rice, broth and kimchi. The plumbing rarely worked and power outages were constant, Fowle told the Atavist.
Euna Lee, a Korean American journalist, was found guilty of illegally entering North Korea in 2009 and sentenced to 12 years' hard labor. (She was freed with her colleague Laura Ling after six months, when former president Bill Clinton went to Pyongyang to get them out.)
Lee, who wrote a book called "The World Is Bigger Now" about her detention in North Korea, told The Washington Post that she was also held in a guesthouse near Pyongyang, about a 15-minute drive to the Yanggakdo Hotel.
“I received a simple Korean meal three times a day which included a bowl of rice, a couple of vegetable dishes and a small fried rice,” she said.
What about the labor?
In an interview with CNN during his captivity, Kenneth Bae, a Korean American missionary who was also sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labor, described doing agricultural work for eight hours a day, six days a week. He lost 60 pounds during his captivity.
During his detention, Bae was put on camera dressed in a gray prison uniform and cap, with the number 103 stamped on his chest.
Lee, however, did not have to do any work.
She was told that officials were discussing when to send her to a labor camp, she said, "but fortunately President Clinton came to rescue me and my colleague before that happened. I felt very fortunate.”
How are these American prisoners treated?
Lee said she was interrogated for about a month — eight hours a day, Monday through Saturday.
“The interrogator raised his hand but never physically hit me. The worst threat for me was when he told me I would never see my daughter again,” she recalled. “During the interrogation, they wanted to know every detail and I got in trouble for [with]holding information.”
Matthew Miller, a 25-year-old from Bakersfield, Calif., tried to get arrested in North Korea, ripping up his tourist visa on arrival in Pyongyang. He was convicted of espionage and was sentenced to six years of hard labor and held for six months before being released at the same time as Bae — after Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper went to Pyongyang.
Miller was initially held in the Yanggakdo hotel, then moved after three weeks to a guest house. He spent five months there. Miller told NK News, a specialist website, that he wanted to find out what North Korea was like beyond the tourist trail.
“This might sound strange, but I was prepared for the ‘torture’ but instead of that I was killed with kindness, and with that my mind folded and the plan fell apart,” he said.
This still sounds awful.
Yes, even if Warmbier is being held in a guesthouse and even if he's not being forced to work — or not yet being forced to work — he is still clearly being held in adverse conditions against his will, with no immediate prospect of release.
Bae, who is releasing a book next month, expressed sympathy for Warmbier.
“Our hearts go out to Mr. Warmbier and his family as they deal with the devastating news of his 15-year hard labor sentence in the DPRK (North Korea)," Bae said in a statement released by his publisher. "My family and I are praying that he will be able to come home soon. Our prayers are also with the Warmbier family, as we know what a toll the imprisonment takes on the whole family.”
Lee, the journalist, said all Americans should think very carefully about visiting North Korea. "Visiting North Korea through a travel agency doesn't mean you are safe. It would be wise to think twice before visiting the country," she said.
The State Department warns against travel to North Korea, highlighting "the risk of arrest and long-term detention due to [North Korea's] inconsistent application of its criminal laws."