Will Otto Wambier Be Released Early? America-North Korea Relations Hold The Key To The College Student's Fate

In March, American college student Otto Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of prison and hard labor in North Korea for stealing a propaganda poster from his hotel room. The 21-year-old University of Virginia undergrad was convicted after a one-hour trial in front of the North Korea’s Supreme Court. The sentence may seem extreme, but this is not the first time that an American has been handed an extreme sentence for infractions as varied as illegally entering the country and leaving a Bible behind in a hotel room. So is there the chance that Otto Warmbier will be released early?

There is a chance, but it has little to do with Warmbier himself or the case against him. He could be the best behaved prisoner in North Korea ever, and they still wouldn't let him out for good behavior. What will matter most is negotiations with the United States. Bill Richardson, former New Mexico governor and longtime statesman who has previously negotiated for Americans' release from North Korea, summed up the situation in an email to The New York Times: "An unfortunate development but a familiar pattern with American detainees. Hopefully a prelude to negotiations that might lead to a release on humanitarian grounds.”

What has generally happened in the past is that someone like Richardson visits North Korea, and the government then goes ahead and releases the prisoner. One of the most famous instances was back in 2009, when Laura Ling and Euna Lee were arrested while filming a piece for Current TV. They were accused of illegally entering the country from China, and spent months detained before former President Bill Clinton visited the country. They were then pardoned and released. Former President Jimmy Carter made a similar trip in 2010.

One of the more recent visits was made by the Obama administration’s national intelligence director, James R. Clapper, Jr. He flew to North Korea to free two Americans, Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller. Bae was a tour operator and Christian missionary from Washington state who was accused of proselytizing. Miller was a tourist from California who allegedly tore up his visa upon arrival and requested asylum. Clapper was able to free both.

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It didn't take long for the United States to react to Warmbier's fate. Hours after his sentence was announced, the Obama administration announced new sanctions against North Korea, ranging from shipping and energy to financial services. That, combined with North Korea's recent UN-condemned missile tests, could inject more uncertainty into a negotiated release.

Warmbier is also not the only American currently being held by Pyongyang. Kim Tong Chol, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Virginia, was accused of spying for South Korea while running a trading and hotel company in a special economic zone in North Korea near China. On Friday, he admitted guilt in the case, apologized at a press conference, and asked the North Korean government for forgiveness. How these developments will play out in Warmbier's case remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Richardson has started negotiations. At the urging of Ohio Governor John Kasich (Warmbier is from Ohio), Richardson met with two North Korean officials in New York in March.