TOKYO — North Korea has released video footage of what appears to be Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student being held in Pyongyang, removing a propaganda sign from a hotel wall.
The short, grainy clip, published by the state-run Korean Central News Agency, shows a tall man going up to a red propaganda sign on the wall in a corridor and pulling it down, placing it on the floor.
The sign is only partially visible, but the words that can be seen read: “Arm ourselves with strong socialism.” The North Korean regime, which maintains control through a personality cult, has signs extolling the Kim family and their ideology all over the country, from train stations to mountainsides.
The timestamp on the video is 1:57 a.m. on New Year’s Day, consistent with the reports of when Warmbier took the sign from a staff-only floor of the Yanggakdo International Hotel. He was detained on Jan. 2 at Pyongyang airport as he prepared to leave the country after a five-day tour.
But the person’s face is not clear, and the video does not show what happened after he put the sign of the floor. Also, somewhat unusually, the corridor is well-lit. A reporter who has visited a staff-only floor of the Yanggakdo hotel during the daytime found it completely dark, as is often the case in North Korea, where electricity is in short supply.
During a one-hour trial in the Supreme Court Wednesday, North Korea convicted Warmbier, a 21-year-old from Cincinnati, of “hostile acts against the state” and sentenced him to 15 years in prison with hard labor.
After the “trial,” KCNA reported that Warmbier had been accused of violating Article 60 of North Korea’s criminal code, a state subversion charge, and an inquiry was conducted.
“In the course of the inquiry, the accused confessed to the serious offense against [North Korea] he had committed, pursuant to the U.S. government’s hostile policy toward it, in a bid to impair the unity of its people after entering it as a tourist,” KCNA said.
Two weeks before, Warmbier was brought out to address diplomats and mainly North Korean reporters at a news conference in Pyongyang, during which he confessed to a “very severe and pre-planned” crime.
In the wee hours of Jan. 1, he tried to steal a propaganda sign from a staff-only floor of the Yanggakdo 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 during the Feb. 29 news conference, 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 and the United States government.
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.
The White House and U.S. State Department have urged the North Korean government to pardon and release Warmbier, saying his 15-year sentence was unduly harsh and amounts to using the 21-year-old as a political pawn.
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 have not respond to requests for comment after Wednesday’s sentencing.
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.