PYONGYANG – The North Korean Government has sentenced American student Otto F. Warmbier to 15 years of hard labor for subversion on Wednesday after he tearfully apologized for trying to steal a political propaganda poster in his hotel in Pyongyang
Otto F. Warmbier, 21, a University of Virginia undergraduate from Cincinnati, was convicted after a one-hour trial Wednesday morning at the countryâ€™s Supreme Court, according to The Associated Press, which has a bureau in Pyongyang. The Japanese news agency Kyodo and the Chinese state-run Xinhua agency also covered the conviction and sentencing. There was no immediate report from North Koreaâ€™s state-run news media.
The sentence is the latest penalty that North Korea has meted out to a small number of American tourists, missionaries and journalists in recent years for what have been deemed antistate crimes, including accusations of illegal entry and leaving a Bible behind in a hotel.
Mr. Warmbier, who entered North Korea as part of a tour group, was detained on Jan. 2 as he was about to board a plane to leave the country. In announcing his arrest, the state news media said that Mr. Warmbier had visited with the intent of â€œbringing down the foundation of its single-minded unity.â€
The charges against him claimed that the C.I.A., a secretive American university organization and a member of a church in Ohio had encouraged him to commit the â€œhostile actâ€ of stealing a political poster from a wall in his hotel.
In late February, Mr. Warmbier sobbed and pleaded for his release at a government-arranged news conference in Pyongyang, where he admitted stealing the poster and said that the church member had offered to buy him a used car worth $10,000 in exchange. â€œI made the worst mistake of my life,â€ Mr. Warmbier said.
It was impossible to determine whether Mr. Warmbier had been coerced into making the statements. Some American detainees who have spoken at similar news conferences in Pyongyang later said, after being freed, that they had been forced to confess to crimes and to apologize.
The sentencing of Mr. Warmbier comes just weeks after the United States and its allies led a successful push for tougher United Nations sanctions against North Korea, to punish the country for its recent tests of a long-range rocket and a nuclear device that it claimed was a hydrogen bomb. The North has since issued a torrent of bellicose statements directed at the United States, including threats to launch â€œpre-emptiveâ€ nuclear strikes.
Over the years, North Korea has used detained Americans to try to gain diplomatic leverage against Washington. Some detainees were released only after prominent Americans, like the former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, visited Pyongyang.
Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American missionary convicted of trying to establish a secret proselytizing network, was freed in November 2014 after the United States director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., went to North Korea. Mr. Bae had been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
Another detained American, Matthew Todd Miller, was released at the same time; he had been accused of committing â€œhostile actsâ€ and sentenced to six yearsâ€™ hard labor just two months before.
On Tuesday, Bill Richardson, a longtime American diplomat and former governor of New Mexico who has visited Pyongyang a number of times, met with two North Korean officials in New York to urge Mr. Warmbierâ€™s release on humanitarian grounds.
By Choe Sang-Hun, Associated Press