The Democratic People's Republic of Korea's Supreme Court sentenced a 21-year-old American college student to 15 years in prison with hard labor on March 16. Although travel to North Korea isn't illegal for U.S. citizens, the Department of State strongly recommends against any travel to the East Asian nation. So what was Otto Warmbier doing in North Korea, a country not known for its friendly relations with the United States?
Warmbier, a University of Virginia undergraduate, was taken into custody Jan. 2 at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport while waiting to board a plane after exploring North Korea as part of a five-day tour with China-based budget tour operator Young Pioneer Tours. He was charged with subversion and committing a "hostile act" against the state for attempting to steal a propaganda poster from Pyongyang's Yanggakdo International Hotel.
In an emotional "confession" before North Korea's Supreme Court, Warmbier said he first began considering a trip to North Korea after colleagues recommended a visit to him based on the country's beauty, architecture, and his interest in communist nations. Warmbier told the court he found himself presented with an opportunity to visit the country while studying in Hong Kong. "Growing up in the United States, I was taught that the DPR Korea is a mysterious, 'isolated communist nation' from the mass media and education," Warmbier said. "This made an innocent-minded adventurous young man like myself want to show my bravery to improve my reputation and show a western victory over the DPR Korea."
Warmbier claimed he had been coerced into committing the crime by the Friendship United Methodist Church and the Z Society, a philanthropic organization founded at the University of Virginia, on behalf of the U.S. government. (Both organizations have denied the accusations and claim Warmbier wasn't a member.) In his testimony, Warmbier said his crime had been organized "to harm the work ethic and motivation of the Korean people."
"I never, never should have allowed myself to be lured by the United States administration to commit a crime in this country," a tearful Warmbier said. "I wish that the United States administration never manipulate people like myself in the future to commit crimes against foreign countries. I entirely beg you, the people and government of the DPRK, for your forgiveness. Please! I made the worst mistake of my life!"
It's not clear whether Warmbier issued this confession before the court under duress. Many people detained by the North Korean government recant their confessions once released, and the regime has been accused of political hostage-taking when embroiled in diplomatic disputes. "When North Korea gets into a diplomatic dispute with the U.S. government, they like to grab any American they can find and use them as bargaining chips," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch told TIME magazine.
At the time of Warmbier's detention, the U.S. and the U.N. Security Council were weighing whether to hit North Korea with further economic sanctions in response to recent nuclear testing activities.
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