TOKYO — A tearful University of Virginia student detained in North Korea confessed, in a highly orchestrated news conference Monday, to the “very severe and pre-planned” crime of trying to steal a propaganda sign from a hotel in Pyongyang.
Otto Warmbier, a 21-year-old economics major, had not been seen since he was arrested at Pyongyang airport on Jan. 2, at the end of a five-day tour to North Korea. The trip was a stopover on his way to Hong Kong, where he was to take part in a university-sponsored financial class.
But it wasn’t until three weeks later that Kim Jong Un’s regime announced it was holding the Ohio native for an unspecified “hostile act” against the state. In the meantime, North Korea has conducted a nuclear test and a long-range missile launch, inflaming tensions with the outside world.
Escorted by North Korean guards into a news conference in Pyongyang on Monday, Warmbier, reading from handwritten notes, said he had tried to steal a political sign promoting “the [North] Korean people’s love for their system” from the hotel.
“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. He was wearing a beige jacket with a shirt and tie and was cleanshaven. He appeared to be in good health.
Americans who previously have been detained in North Korea have also been brought out to the news media to “confess” their crimes, with the detainees told what to say and the reporters told what to ask. After saying he had made the “worst mistake of my life” as he asked for forgiveness, Warmbier performed a deep bow in front of the mainly North Korean reporters.
Analysts say Warmbier was probably told what to say and how to deliver the bizarre statement, in which the student said he was impressed by North Korea’s “humanitarian treatment of severe criminals like myself” and referred to the “connivance” of the “United States administration.”
Such “confessions,” which are repeatedly played on North Korean television for domestic propaganda purposes, are usually a necessary step before detainees can be released.
However, recent detainees have had to go through a show trial and conviction before being freed.
Warmbier’s parents, Fred and Cindy, have not been able to contact their son since his arrest and released a statement through U-Va. in which they urged North Korea to release him.
“I hope the fact that he has conveyed his sincere apology for anything that he may have done wrong will now make it possible for the DPRK authorities to allow him to return home,” the statement said, using the official acronym for North Korea and written in the voice of Fred. “I urge the DPRK government to consider his youth and make an important humanitarian gesture by allowing him to return to his loved ones.”
In his appearance before the media, Otto 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.”
All across North Korea, from factories and government offices to hillsides and intersections, there are propangandistic slogans lauding the ruling Kim regime, which maintains power through an all-encompassing personality cult. Speaking ill of the Kims — or even folding a newspaper so the leader’s face is halved — is treasonous.
Taking the banner would “harm the unity and motivation of the North Korean people and show this country an insult from the West,” Warmbier said, adding that the plan had the U.S. government’s approval.
The church member would give him a used car worth $10,000 if he stole the sign and would pay $200,000 to his mother if he was arrested in the process.
Warmbier said his family’s “very severe financial difficulties” made him do it. “I started to consider this as my only golden opportunity to earn money,” he said, adding that his family would not be paid if he mentioned the church’s involvement.
He also said that the Z Society, a student group at U-Va., “clandestinely encouraged my act.”
The slogan was on a staff-only floor of the Yanggakdo hotel, which is called “Alcatraz” by regular foreign visitors because it is situated on an island in the river that runs through Pyongyang and impossible to get off without detection. He reportedly pulled the banner from the wall but realized it was too big to carry off, so he abandoned it there.
Warmbier was on a trip organized by Young Pioneers Tours, one of a handful of travel companies that take adventurous tourists into North Korea. The company, which had previously referred to an incident at the hotel, said it had nothing to add following Warmbier's statement.
In Washington, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said that the U.S. government, which does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea, was working with the Swedish Embassy, which represents American interests there, on the case.