North Korea sentenced Otto Warmbier of Ohio to 15 years of hard labor after a one hour trial on Wednesday. Warmbier, a 21 year-old college student, had been studying Economics at the University of Virginia. He was merely a tourist on January 1, when he was arrested for stealing a propaganda banner. He revealed that a friend’s mother wanted one to hang in her church, apparently for display purposes.
North Korea received a clear message concerning Otto Warmbier within hours of the sentencing. The Obama Administration has demanded the immediate pardon and release of Warmbier. Bill Richardson, former Ambassador to the United Nations, told the Associated Press, as reported in USA Today, that he had met with North Korean diplomats in New York on Tuesday. On Wednesday, following the sentencing, America is even more insistent.
North Korea sentenced Otto Warmbier after he confessed to taking the banner, and expressed that it was a serious crime. The young man was arrested with the flag as he was attempting to catch a flight home on January 2, according to CNN. Since then, he has been jailed, humiliated, and terrified of his potential fate for what in North Korea is a serious crime. He cried and begged for mercy at his trial, and apparently North Korea felt they were merciful in their sentencing.
The confession Otto Warmbier was forced to make obviously had little resemblance to the truth, or an American point of view. He had been advised by Korean officials on the manner in which he should speak in court. It is hard for Americans to even imagine the way courts operate in North Korea.
“I never, never should have allowed myself to be lured by the United States administration to commit a crime in this country.”
When North Korea sentenced Otto Warmbier, he wept uncontrollably, and it is apparent the student is terrified. He is far from home in a strange country, away from family and friends. He is confronted by a culture that is difficult for Americans to comprehend. He did not realize that stealing a political banner was such a serious offense. Even so, Mr. Warmbier is a very bright young man in the estimation of the University of Virginia. He was an Echols Scholar, an honor, characterized as a four-year academic program, and reserved for only 250 students in each graduating class. Echols scholars are described in glowing terms by the university administration literature.
“[Echols scholars Are] intellectual risk-takers, [who have shown] academic excellence, intellectual leadership, and evidence of the ability to grapple with complex topics.”
How could North Korea have sentenced Otto Warmbier, a U.S. college student of such potential, then use him for hard labor? Why did such a gifted student not realize he should not test the Korean Government by stealing a political propaganda banner from their country? In America, defacement of property, including burning the American flag, has very little consequence, but the degree of respect and admiration the Korean Government expects of citizens and visitors is far higher. North Korea does not tolerate many behaviors that are common in the U.S. In his youth, he was apparently unaware of the high risk involved in what he thought was an insignificant prank. Otto Warmbier has since learned that he must speak as the North Koreans think. USA Today reports that the college student told Korean reporters he understands his crime.
“On the early morning of Jan. 1, 2016, I committed my crime, of taking out the important political slogan from the staff-only area of the Yanggakdo International Hotel, which aimed at harming the work ethic and the motivation of the Korean people, I beg you, the people and government of the DPRK, for your forgiveness.”
North Korea has sentenced U.S. citizens like Otto Warmbier to hard labor before. The Washington Post reports that frequently, it is Christianity and religious behaviors that land them in Korean prisons. Kenneth Bae is a Korean American missionary, also sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, for proselytizing and allegedly by doing so, he was attempting to overthrow the Korean Government. Bae performed his hard labor on a farm, eight hours a day, six days a week, from November 3, 2012 to November 8, 2014. Kenneth Bae was held prisoner in Korea longer than any other American. While 735 days is a long time, it is not the 15 years Otto was sentenced to. Most of Korea’s American prisoners in similar situations have been released in 213 days or less.
When North Korea sentenced Otto Warmbier to hard labor, their motives may have been to use him to bargain with the United States government. Sometimes these American prisoners are released in prisoner exchange or in return for various concessions. It makes good domestic propaganda when western leaders are humbled to travel to North Korea and plead for the release of citizens. Ambassador Bill Richardson is cautious of making any promises about the fate of Otto Warmbier.
“My concern now is that the U.S.-North Korean relationship is in very low, negative ebb, and I hope that does not affect a humanitarian negotiation for the release of Otto.”
Whatever North Korea planned as they sentenced Otto Warmbier may be thwarted, as Obama is taking a hard line on them, and introducing new sanctions as a consequence of their nuclear weapons program. This may impact negotiations for Otto Warmbier.
While North Korea sentenced Otto Warmbier to 15 years of hard labor, it is likely that the American Government will be able to negotiate his release within the year or two, based on similar past arrests.
[Photo by AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon]