SEOUL — White House and U.S. State Department officials have urged the North Korean government to pardon and release a University of Virginia student being held there, saying his 15-year sentence in prison with hard labor for trying to steal a propaganda sign was unduly harsh and amounts to using the 21-year-old as a political pawn.
Otto Warmbier, an economics major from Cincinnati who had gone to North Korea with a tour group, was accused of trying to steal a sign from a Pyongyang hotel where he was staying in January. He was convicted and sentenced Wednesday after a one-hour trial in the Supreme Court. Video footage showed Warmbier, dressed in the same clothes he was wearing during a highly choreographed news conference last month, being led into the court room in handcuffs.
Diplomats from the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, which represents American interests in North Korea because the United States does not have diplomatic relations with the country, were present at the trial.
Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico and a diplomat who has secured the release of detainees from North Korea and elsewhere, is working to bring Warmbier back home, imploring the government to release him on humanitarian grounds. Richardson met Tuesday morning with two members of the North Korean mission to the United Nations in New York after Warmbier’s parents and Ohio Gov. John Kasich asked him to intervene, he said.
“This is a kid,” whose humanitarian release shouldn’t be complicated by the tense relations between the U.S. and North Korea, Richardson said. “I offered to help get him out.”
The two North Korean officials, with whom Richardson has dealt before on similar cases, said they would convey his request. “But I know the State Department is doing their best.”
Typically in such cases, negotiating can begin after sentencing, Richardson said.
Warmbier is well-liked and admired in his hometown and at U-Va., described by friends as buoyant, funny, a fraternity brother, someone who is smart and serious about academics. He was a commencement speaker at his high school and was honored with a scholarship at U-Va. given to a small number of students who are leaders and intellectual risk-takers.
Warmbier had been on his way to Hong Kong for a financial course connected to his U-Va. studies when he was arrested in the Pyongyang airport as he was leaving the country Jan. 2, at the end of the tour. Three weeks later, the North Korean government announced that it was holding the student for an unspecified “hostile act” against the state.
In February, Warmbier participated in a highly orchestrated news conference in Pyongyang, admitting to a “very severe and pre-planned crime,” saying he tried to steal a political sign from his hotel that promoted the North Korean people’s “love for their system,” according to the official Korean Central News Agency.
“The aim of my task was to harm the motivation and work ethic of the Korean people. This was a very foolish aim,” Warmbier said at the time.
Warmbier was charged with subversion under Article 60 of North Korea’s criminal code, the Associated Press reported from Pyongyang. The court held that he had committed a crime “pursuant to the U.S. government’s hostile policy toward [the North], in a bid to impair the unity of its people after entering it as a tourist,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported Wednesday.
In his appearance before the media in February, Warmbier said he had been instructed by a female member of Friendship United Methodist Church in Wyoming, Ohio, to steal one of North Korea’s ubiquitous propaganda signs and take it back to the United States as a “trophy.”
The pastor of the church, which is close to Warmbier’s home, did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
U.S. officials said the punishment doesn’t fit the allegations, which Richardson said amount to a youthful indiscretion.
“He just made a mistake – a college prank,” Richardson said. “He wasn’t trying to overthrow the government. He and his family should not suffer because of this incident.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the allegations for which Warmbier was arrested and imprisoned “would not give rise to arrest or imprisonment in the United States, or just about any country in the world. It is increasingly clear the North Korean government seeks to use these U.S. citizens as pawns for a political agenda.”
U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner pointedly put quote marks around the charges against Warmbier, of committing “hostile acts” against North Korea. Toner urged North Korea to immediately release Warmbier on humanitarian grounds.
“The department believes the sentence is unduly harsh for the actions Mr. Warmbier allegedly took,” Toner said, referring to North Korea by it’s official acronym, DPRK. “Despite claims that U.S. citizens arrested in the DPRK are not used for political purposes, it is increasingly clear, from its very public treatment of these cases, the DPRK does exactly that.”
Toner also said Warmbier’s sentence underscores the risks associated with travel to North Korea. He said the State Department “strongly recommends” that U.S. citizens not travel to North Korea, though it is not illegal to travel there. “Normally, we do not ever forbid or prohibit the travel,” Toner said.
North Korea has detained and convicted a number of Americans in recent years and used them as bargaining chips with the United States. Recent detainees include Kenneth Bae, a Korean American missionary who was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor, and was released after 18 months.
Warmbier’s parents, Fred and Cindy, have said in a statement that they hoped their son’s “sincere apology for anything that he may have done wrong” would move the government to release him. They did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
Kasich, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, called on North Korea to immediately release Warmbier to his family in Ohio.
“His detention was completely unjustified and the sentence North Korea imposed on him is an affront to concepts of justice,” Kasich said. “Continuing to hold him only further alienates North Korea from the international community. I urge the Obama Administration to redouble its efforts to secure his release and ask all Ohioans to continue to lift up Otto and his family in prayer in support of his swift, safe return.”
Warmbier is being held at a particularly sensitive time, when annual military drills between the United States and South Korea are coinciding with international sanctions against North Korea’s regime to punish it for its recent nuclear test and missile launches.
North Korea always protests the joint military drills in South Korea because it sees them as a pretext for an invasion, but Pyongyang’s reaction is particularly ferocious this year. The allies are practicing “decapitation strikes” that target North Korea’s leadership and its nuclear and missile facilities.
Furthermore, the sanctions imposed by the United Nations, coupled with direct measures taken by the United States, Japan and South Korea, are the toughest yet and could inflict a significant amount of pain on the North Korean regime.
The allegations against Warmbier stem from an incident in the wee hours of Jan. 1, when he tried to steal a propaganda sign from a staff-only floor of the Yanggakdo International Hotel, one of the main places where foreign tourists stay in Pyongyang. He reportedly pulled the banner from the wall but realized it was too big to carry off, so he abandoned it there.
“The aim of my task was to harm the motivation and work ethic of the Korean people. This was a very foolish aim,” Warmbier said in February, reading from handwritten notes. He described a bizarre plot in which he was directed to steal the sign by a church member, a U-Va student group — the Z Society — and the United States government.
On campus at U-Va., students were stunned, trading news stories on social media and struggling to understand.
The Z Society, which was part of the plot attributed to Warmbier by the North Korean government, is one of the elite university’s old secret societies. The group focuses on leadership, service and philanthropy on campus, such as reaching out to students who are in need. So students found Warmbier’s “confession” ridiculous, said Ahmad Shawwal, the president of the first-year class.
“We just hope the matter’s resolved and we can get him out of North Korea and integrate him back into university life,” Shawwal said. “I pray for his family.”
Previous Americans detained in North Korea also have been brought by authorities before the media to “confess” their crimes, with the detainees told what to say and the reporters told what to ask.
Analysts expect that Warmbier also was directed in this way to deliver the statement, in which the student said he was impressed by North Korea’s “humanitarian treatment of severe criminals like myself.”
Several U.S. citizens have been held in Pyongyang in recent years, usually because of activities relating to Christianity, and also have been sentenced to hard labor.
North Korea tries to use them as bargaining chips and releases them after high-profile interventions that it can use for its domestic propaganda purposes, portraying the visits by officials as Americans coming to pay homage to North Korea.
Former president Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter have both been to Pyongyang for this reason, and James R. Clapper Jr., the Director of National Intelligence, went to Pyongyang at the end of 2014 to free three Americans being held there.
One of them, Bae, a Korean American missionary, had been sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor for “hostile acts against the republic,” including proselytizing and attempting to overthrow the regime. Bae’s sister described how he was having to do manual work on a farm for eight hours a day, six days a week.
Another, Matthew Miller from California, had been sentenced to six years’ hard labor after ripping up his tourist visa on arrival in North Korea.
At U-Va., Warmbier was selected as an Echols Scholar, a special four-year academic program for fewer than 250 students in each class. Those chosen are described as “intellectual risk-takers” who have shown “academic excellence, intellectual leadership, and evidence of the ability to grapple with complex topics,” according to the university’s website.
Svrluga and Morello reported from Washington.