American student Otto Warmbier has been sentenced to 15 years hard labor by the secretive North Korean dictatorship of Kim Jong Un. Warmbier has been found guilty of attempting to steal a poster from his hotel at the behest of the U.S. government, and will now be sent to a labor camp to begin serving his sentence. What kind of labor has Otto Warmbier been sentenced to, exactly? It will depend on the message that North Korea wants to send, and the risks that are involved by holding an American young person at the camp.
Conditions in North Korea are challenging under even the mildest circumstances. For Warmbier, they are likely to get much worse, very quickly. The Hermit Kingdom regularly sentences dissidents to hard labor, where for some, entering a labor camp means you won't be leaving. According to John Sifton, Asia policy director for Human Rights Watch: “It’s a nightmare there — if you are really in trouble you get sent to a camp where you will never come out." However, since Warmbier is a foreign national and went through a high-profile show trial, it is highly unlikely that he will be exposed to the harshest kinds of treatment possible.
Labor camps in North Korea could hypothetically be located anywhere, but the ones which the U.N. knows about are often located in isolated, rural areas. Inmates are forced to work in quarries, forestry, or on agricultural operations. Food and drink are often insufficient, and political prisoners have been reportedly forced to trap snakes and mice to be eaten raw in order to boost their caloric intake.
Despite Warmbier's draconian sentencing for just allegedly attempting to steal some wall art, it is unlikely that he will experience the worst of the system. The North Korean authorities have a vested interest in maintaining secrecy — allowing an American to be exposed to the worst realities of life in prison labor camps is a liability that the regime likely cannot afford at this stage. It is probable that he will find himself working in an agricultural operation like former American detainee Kenneth Bae did, and will have access to enough food and water to be kept alive and relatively safe.
Bae was also sentenced to a 15-year term, like Warmbier, but released back to the United States after about only two years. It is often times more profitable for the North Korean regime to use captured Americans pawns in order to get concessions from the U.S. or her allies. Here's hoping Warmbier is released as soon as possible, and that he finds the strength inside himself to survive what will likely be a challenging ordeal.