Otto Warmbier, a 21-year-old student at the University of Virginia who was visiting North Korea, has been given 15 years hard labor for crimes against the state after trying to steal a propaganda sign from a hotel.

Warmbier was—for some extremely bad and dumb reason—visiting North Korea with Young Pioneer Tours in January (travel to North Korea is legal, but the State Dept. strongly advises against it), and was detained as he was trying to leave the country on January 2. Shortly after his arrest, according to the New York Times, the state news media accused Warmbier of entering the country with the intent of “bringing down the foundation of its single-minded unity.”

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Warmbier appeared in a government-produced news conference last month, where he said that he had attempted to steal the banner for a member of his church, who offered to buy him a $10,000 used car in return; he also said that she offered $200K to his mother if he was detained in the process, and that his family’s “very severe financial difficulties” propelled his act. From the Times:

“I made the worst mistake of my life,” said Mr. Warmbier, sobbing and pleading for his release, according to Associated Press video of the news conference, which was held at the People’s Palace of Culture in Pyongyang.

Early on Jan. 1, “I committed my crime of taking out the important political slogan from the staff-only area of the Yanggakdo International Hotel,” Mr. Warmbier, 21, said at the news conference. The charges against him said he was encouraged to commit the “hostile act” by a member of an Ohio church, a secretive university organization and the C.I.A.

At the news conference, Warmbier made statements that were likely, uh, not his own, such as “I was used by the United States administration like many before” and, via BBC, “The aim of my task was to harm the motivation and work ethic of the Korean people. This was a very foolish aim.”

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Warmbier also reportedly said that the Z-society, a philanthropic secret society at UVA, “clandestinely encouraged my act.”

The BBC report points out that detainees of North Korea often recant these confessions when they get out of the country, which often doesn’t happen until senior U.S. officials or statesmen visit in person to secure their release.

Warmbier was sentenced one day after US diplomat Bill Richardson met with officials to push for Warmbier’s release. North Korea has just been dealt crippling sanctions over a recent nuclear test, and BBC reports that the country sometimes detains foreigners as political leverage. According to the Times, a previous visitor was arrested and detained for months after leaving a bible in a hotel.

According to the Washington Post, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the U.S. government was working with the Swedish Embassy (the U.S. doesn’t have diplomatic relations with North Korea) on Warmbier’s case.


Contact the author at ellie@jezebel.com.

Image via Associated Press.