Otto Warmbier: American Student Sentenced To 15 Years Hard Labor In North Korea

American student Otto Warmbier has been sentenced to 15 years hard labor in a prison in North Korea. Warmbier was convicted of stealing a political banner from a restricted staff-only area at a hotel.

Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student from Wyoming, Ohio, was convicted of subversion during a one-hour trial on Wednesday morning. The 21-year-old Cincinnati-area man was arrested for “perpetrating a hostile act” against the North Korean government in January, the New York Times reports.

During the extremely brief trial, the American student apologized for stealing the political banner from the hotel. Warmbier said that he was trying to take the banner so he could give it to a church friend as a souvenir from the North Korea vacation, USA Today reports.

During the trial, government attorneys maintained that the University of Virginia student was merely posing as a tourist. They prosecutors further contended that he really entered North Korea in an effort to disturb “unity” with the “tacit connivance of the U.S. government.”

Although the U.S. State Department strongly discourages traveling to North Korea, such excursions are not prohibited. Otto Warmbier went to the secluded country as part of a Young Pioneer Tours trip.

Young Pioneer Tours bills itself as an “adventure travel” company. The mainland China-based tourism business was created in 2008. According to its website, Young Pioneer Tours specializes in trips to North Korea.

Here’s an excerpt from the Young Pioneer Tours website detailing the types of trips booked through the agency.

“We are an adventure tour operator that provides ‘budget tours to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from.’ We are renowned and rated as one of the best tour operators to the DPRK [North Korea] with our unparalleled experience, fun way of doing things, and most importantly, excellent relations in country; this makes us the best choice for your Korea tour.”

Each year, a small number of American students, missionaries, and journalists travel to North Korea. It is not wholly uncommon for such visitors to be accused of crimes against the state. In the past, American tourists have been charged with illegally leaving a Bible in a hotel and illegally crossing the border into the country.

During a press conference in February, Otto Warmbier said he made the worst mistake of his entire life when he tried to steal the political banner. During his time at the microphone, where he cried and begged to be released, the American student also said that his church friend has offered to buy him a used car valued at $10,000 if he brought back a North Korea political banner or sign.

The statements by the University of Virginia may have been coerced. In the past, Americans who were charged with crimes in North Korea said that before they were released, they were paraded in front of cameras and told to confess to the charges and to apologize.

The arrest of Warmbier comes just a few weeks after the United States government tightened sanctions against North Korea in response to the nation’s testing of a long-range rocket and alleged nuclear device.

What do you think about American student Otto Warmbier being sentenced to 15 years hard labor? Is it foolish for U.S. citizens to travel to North Korea?

[Photo by Jon Chol Jin/AP]