CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly sourced the news to KCNA
A U.S. student on Wednesday received a 15-year sentence of hard labor in North Korea, the Kyodo and AP news agencies said on Wednesday, the third American to be detained in the past 12 months.
Otto Warmbier, a 21-year-old student from the University of Virginia, was sentenced after a one hour trial and charged with subversion, the AP news agency said, who reported on the event several hours ahead of state media outlet the Korea Central News Agency (KCNA).
The student, who had entered North Korea “under the guise” of tourism, had the “purpose of bringing down the foundation of (the DPRK’s) single-minded unity at the tacit connivance of the U.S. government and under its manipulation,” the KCNA previously said upon news of his arrest in January.
He was arrested after attempting to leave the country following a New Year’s tour with the Chinese-based Young Pioneer Tours agency.
In February, the KCNA subsequently published a letter attributed to Warmbier that detailed his wrongdoing of “taking a political slogan from the staff-only area of the Yanggakdo International Hotel.”
But Phil Robertson, Asia division deputy director of Human Rights Watch, said on Wednesday that the 15 year punishment for the incident – which he described as a “college-style prank” – was “outrageous and shocking.”
“Pyongyang should recognize this student’s self-admitted mistake as a misdemeanor offense that it would be in most countries, release him on humanitarian grounds, and send him home,” Robertson added.
In February Warmbier reportedly admitted that his friend’s mother, a member of the Friendship United Methodist Church named Sharon Webb, encouraged his “pre-planned” activity.
“Sharon emphasized that her church does not support the government of North Korea and that communism should be ended … She asked me to take an important political slogan from North Korea to be hung in her church as a ‘trophy,’” the KCNA copy of his letter said.
He said that financial rewards were offered, worth $10,000 to him and $200,000 to his mother, and that the money would help with his brother and sister’s “university tuition.”
He also said the CIA had been aware of his crime, and mentioned the U.S.’s “hostile policy against the DPRK.”
Arrests of American visitors to North Korea have been increasing steadily since Kim Jong Un’s succession to power, with news of Warmbier’s initial arrest coming just weeks after authorities paraded U.S. passport holder Kim Dong-cheol to foreign viewers via a high-profile interview with CNN.
That report came as a surprise to many observers, for not following the usual protocol of authorities publicizing the case via state media ahead of inviting international media to cover the story.
And in May of last year Joo Won-moon, a Korean permanent resident of the U.S. studying at New York University, was also arrested according to the KCNA, for “illegally entering the DPRK after crossing the Amnok River from Dandong.”
He was released five months later across the Panmunjom border crossing at the DMZ to South Korean authorities.
In a recent NK News expert opinion poll, five U.S. based North Korea specialists said that despite an uptick in arrests of American nationals, tourism to the DPRK should be allowed to continue.
“Among the recent dozen or so detainees, virtually all took risks,” said Stephan Haggard, professor of international relations at UC San Diego. “I sympathize with the pain they have caused their families, but most seem to have brought their troubles on themselves.”
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