What Did Otto Frederick Warmbier Do? The Student North Korea Sentenced "Made The Worst Mistake" Of His Life


The Democratic People's Republic of Korea's Supreme Court sentenced a 21-year-old American college student to 15 years of hard labor on Wednesday, leaving many wondering: How did Otto Frederick Warmbier upset North Korea's government? Warmbier, a University of Virginia undergraduate, was taken into custody Jan. 2 at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport and charged with subversive activities and committing a "hostile act." News of Warmbier's crime was not made public until February when North Korean state news media said he had traveled to the East Asian nation intent on "bringing down the foundation of its single-minded unity."

But what exactly was Warmbier's apparently treasonous crime? In a government-organized press conference held Feb. 29, Warmbier confessed to tearing down a poster of a political slogan from the staff holding area at the Yanggakdo International Hotel while touring North Korea with the Young Pioneer Tours company.

In a statement he read at the press conference, Warmbier said he was coerced into stealing the poster by a member of the Friendship United Methodist Church back in Ohio in exchange for a used car worth $10,000. The aim of his crime, he said, was "to harm the worth ethic and motivation of the Korean people."

Warmbier said he was also encouraged by the Z Society, a philanthropic organization founded at the University of Virginia and pleaded for mercy:

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Shortly after Warmbier's trial concluded on Wednesday, State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner said the department felt his sentence was "unduly harsh" and accused the North Korean government of politicizing the arrests of U.S. citizens as a means of retaliation against Washington's reaction to the country's recent testing of nuclear weapons. "Despite official claims that U.S. citizens arrested in the DPRK are not used for political purposes, it's increasingly clear, from its very public treatment of these cases, that the DPRK does exactly that," Toner said before urging Warmbier be pardoned.

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Despite being taken into custody in early January, Warmbier's detention was not made public until February when the United States began pushing for sanctions to be levied against North Korea following its fourth nuclear test and the launch of a long-range missile, the Times reported. The White House announced a series of new sanctions against North Korea on the same day as Warmbier's sentencing, implemented under a tough United Nations Security Council resolution imposed against North Korea two weeks ago.

Fifteen years imprisonment and hard labor is an extreme punishment for taking a poster off a wall, even for North Korea. Furthermore, it's hard to ignore how perfectly the timing of Warmbier's detention and sentencing coincides with how tensions between North Korea and the United States have escalated in recent months. And while it can't be said for certain if he was coerced into making his confession, it certainly seems his attempt to leave North Korea with a souvenir came at a bad time.