It's been more than a week since 21-year-old Otto Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor by the highest court in North Korea. Warmbier, a college student at the University of Virginia, is accused of stealing a propaganda poster from his hotel in the country's capital, Pyongyang, while visiting in January. U.S. diplomats have begun working to secure Warmbier's release, but there's no telling how long he'll remain under the rigid regime. In the meantime, several petitions calling for Warmbier's release have surfaced in the United States, each of them seeking to gain enough traction to keep Warmbier's story top of mind among key decision makers.
Warmbier had traveled to North Korea with a China-based travel company named Young Pioneer Tours, which specializes in North Korean travel. On the day of his flight out of the country, Warmbier was detained by North Korean officials for what the country called "hostile acts." Warmbier has since confessed to taking a poster from his hotel, calling it "the worst mistake of my life."
Warmbier's sentence has been widely criticized, for obvious reasons. In the days since his sentencing, messages of support have popped up on social media, usually accompanied by #FreeOttoWarmbier. Although Warmbier's situation requires more than just raising money or tweeting, everyday Americans have found a way to contribute to his cause by circulating petitions, urging the U.S. government and the government of North Korea to reach an agreement that secures Warmbier's release.
We The People
We the People is the Obama administration's petition portal, which allows any American at least 13 years old to create an online petition for the White House's review. Once a petition has been made, others can sign it online. Petitions that receive 100,000 signatures in 30 days are promised a response from the White House. The We the People petition related to Warmbier's case, which was created on Wednesday, needed several thousand more signatures as of Wednesday evening.
Shortly after Warmbier was sentenced, a support group started a petition on Change.org, a website used by more than 100 million people in more than 196 countries. The petition to release Warmbier is addressed to President Obama and had more than 200 signatures as of Wednesday. The group behind the petition has promised to provide updates on Warmbier's case via Change.org.
Like Change.org, Care2 has millions of members who have put hundreds of millions of signatures on petitions. The petition to bring the U.Va. student home from North Korea was also created almost immediately after Warmbier's sentencing and had just over 150 signatures as of Wednesday. Susan Smith, the creator of the Care2 petition, has directed her message toward the Obama administration, the State Department, Congress, the governor of Virginia, and Amnesty International.
MoveOn.org has become a popular advocacy organization in recent years, particularly thanks to its role in recent elections. MoveOn endorsed and strongly supported President Obama's campaigns for the White House, and, more recently, the group has actively opposed Donald Trump's bid for the same office. MoveOn's petition website features a petition to "Free Otto Warmbier" that says, "The United States government must pursue any and all diplomatic action to secure Otto Warmbrier's freedom."
Signing a petition, particularly one that the White House may be required to respond to, can keep Warmbier's story in the news and on the minds of those who can do more. That said, diplomatic channels are already being used to negotiate the release of Warmbier, as has been done before for other Americans held by the North Koreans. As tensions with North Korea remain high, it's unclear how long the negotiation process could take or how transparent the process will be while it's ongoing.