Otto Warmbier, a 21-year-old University of Virginia student, was visiting North Korea for a New Year’s group tour at the start of 2016. According to the tour operator who had arranged the trip, Warmbier was stopped and searched by immigration police while attempting to return home. He had reportedly stolen a banner displaying a political emblem from his hotel in Pyongyang. As punishment for this supposed crime against the state, Warmbier has been sentenced to fifteen years of extensive labor in North Korea. The prosecution initially requested a life sentence, a ruling lessened by his defense attorney.
Officials in Washington D.C. claim this penalty is unduly harsh and politically motivated, insisting that North Korea has been using American citizens as bait to advance an agenda or motivate high-profile visits from the United States for years. The two states are still technically at war, as the Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty, and currently have no diplomatic relations. State Department spokesman Mark Toner and the Human Rights Watch have also condemned the sentence.
The state-controlled KCNA news agency reported "The accused confessed to the serious offense against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea he had committed, pursuant to the U.S. government's hostile policy toward it, in a bid to impair the unity of its people after entering it as a tourist." Warmbier was detained in January. Last month, he told Pyongyang media that his crime was "very severe and pre-planned."
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