North Korea has sentenced 21-year-old University of Virginia student Otto Frederick Warmbier to 15 years of prison and hard labor. Otto has been in North Korean custody since January 2nd, after authorities detained him at the airport. The DPRK alleges Otto stole a propaganda poster from his hotel, which they maintain constitutes the crime of subversion.
As more details of the case trickled out, the government claimed Warmbier had been “surfing the Internet to study different North Korean political slogans and plotting to steal one by folding it up on a thin rectangular metal sheet, and concealing it in his suitcase.”
The North Korean government further contends the theft was planned in advance and that Otto met with a member of the Friendship United Methodist Church in Wyoming, Ohio. According to a North Korean official close to the case, the church member “emphasized that North Korea is an anti-Christian communist state and that communism should be ended.”
This church member allegedly convinced Otto to steal propaganda from North Korea in order to break the nation’s ideological unity. In exchange for completing the mission, Otto was to receive a $10,000 used car. Now he has been sentenced to 15 years hard labor in a country notorious for using political prisoners for geopolitical leverage.
In his tearful testimony before the court, Otto said:
I apologize to each and every one of the millions of the Korean people, and I beg that you see how I was used and manipulated. My reward for my crime was so much smaller than the rewards that the Z Society and the Friendship United Methodist Church get from the United States administration.
Continuing, Otto issued a stunning statement:
I never, never should have allowed myself to be lured by the United States administration to commit a crime in this country. I wish that the United States administration never manipulate people like myself in the future to commit crimes against foreign countries. I entirely beg you, the people and government of the DPRK, for your forgiveness. Please! I made the worst mistake of my life!
While it is certainly possible the North Korean government coerced this statement from Otto, it must be highlighted that the American student is directly accusing the U.S. government of enlisting him to commit the crime. One possible motive for this would be propagandizing Otto’s capture as proof of North Korea’s corrupt government, as if Americans needed a reminder. Conversely, North Korea could have just as easily forced Otto to make the statement in order to paint the United States as meddling in espionage-type activities.
Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday:
It is increasingly clear that the North Korean government seeks to use these U.S. citizens as pawns to pursue a political agenda.
The draconian sentencing came after former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson made an unsuccessful diplomatic mission to North Korea to plead for Otto’s release. While some legal scholars do not believe Otto will ultimately serve the entire 15-year sentence, there is great consternation over how the situation has developed.
“North Korea’s sentencing of Otto Warmbier to 15 years’ hard labor for a college-style prank is outrageous and shocking,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “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.”
Anti-Media reached out to Friendship United Methodist Church regarding the accusations that a church member urged Otto to steal a propaganda poster as a trophy. A spokesman responded with the following message:
Our thoughts and prayers go out to the young student from Ohio being detained in North Korea, and to his family. We pray for his quick and safe return to the United States. Any further comment would neither be appropriate or helpful while the student is still being detained.
So the questions remain: why was a church member conscripting Otto into such a strange mission? And why is Otto claiming the U.S. government manipulated him? Are these two strands connected in some way? Once the church member in question can be identified, it will surely be interesting to look into the person’s past and ascertain whether they have any affiliations with the CIA or any government agency.
Conspiracies and speculation aside, let’s hope Otto is safe and that U.S. diplomats are able to negotiate his release.
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