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“I made the worst mistake of my life,” stated a teary-eyed Otto Warmbier upon being sentenced to 15 years of hard labor this week by the North Korean supreme court for what has been noted as a “college prank.” The 21-year-old University of Virginia student was detained in January just before boarding a flight at the end of his five-day stay in the reclusive state. He was convicted and sentenced as the result of an hour-long trial for committing “crimes against the state.”
And the horrendous crime to warrant such a serious punishment? Attempting to steal a propaganda poster from the Yanggakdo International Hotel.
North Korean officials presented fingerprints and photographic evidence in court as proof that Warmbier had committed the crime. State media proclaimed that Warmbier had traveled to North Korea with malicious intentions and that he was encouraged to commit the crime by a member of a church from his hometown in Ohio, and by a secretive club at the University, allegedly acting as a front for the CIA.
Both have denied the claims.
The Obama administration fired back by imposing harsher sanctions on the already-sanctioned North Korea following the sentencing. The State Department released a statement yesterday that the punishment is “unduly harsh” and that “it’s increasingly clear” that “US citizens arrested in [North Korea] are…used for political purposes.” Bill Richardson, former Gov. of New Mexico and longtime diplomat, met with two North Korean diplomats on Tuesday to lobby for Warmbier’s release.
About a dozen American prisoners have been held captive in North Korea over the past several years on similar charges to Warmbier. Matthew Miller and Kenneth Bae, the most recent cases, were both accused of “hostile acts” against North Korea, but were both eventually freed in late 2014. Miller had been sentenced to six years of hard labor. Merrill E. Newman, an elderly Korean War veteran, was detained in 2013 and eventually released after apologizing to the North for his actions during the war, which involved training anti-communist guerillas.
Still, Warmbier’s particular sentence appears harsh when compared with that of past American prisoners in North Korea.
In what seems like a hopeless situation for Warmbier, the initial sentencing of Americans in North Korea should generally not be taken at face value. As trend seems to indicate, others have been freed after admitting to their “crimes against the state,” followed by a high-profile visitor from the US. It isn’t officially known whether Warmbier was coerced into stating in a Pyongyang news conference that he was set up by the US government to commit a crime in North Korea, but historically American prisoners have denounced their “confessions” upon returning to the United States, and have admitted that they were indeed forced to confess to the crime.
In a time of particular animosity along the Korean Peninsula due to increased missile testing and joint US-South Korea military exercises, it is becoming increasingly evident that the North is purposefully politicizing its arrests of American citizens. Given the heightened tensions, it is entirely conceivable that Warmbier is simply being used as a “bargaining chip” in order to get a high-profile US official to travel to North Korea and negotiate a release.
But why would North Korea care about a high-profile visitor from the US? It’s simple: to toughen up Dictator Kim Jong-Un’s profile in a time when the country is receiving sanctions left and right for its grandiose nuclear testing. As The Wire puts it:
“A US diplomatic rescue mission would make triumphant headlines across North Korea, where [the Korean Central News Agency] could change the tone from Kim Jong-Un: boy who cried nuclear war, to Kim Jong-Un: international young man of might.”
Photo courtesy of Newsweek