On Jan. 2, North Korea arrested University of Virginia business student Otto Warmbier for attempting to steal a political banner from his hotel room.
Warmbier, 21, took a five-day trip through a China-based travel company, Young Pioneer Tours, to North Korea. Through travel companies such as this one, westerners are able to visit North Korea. However, even with these availabilities, the United States Department of State highly advised against it. On Nov. 20, 2015, the following statement was issued to replace the previous April 15, 2015 issue:
“Travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea is not routine, and U.S. citizens have been subject to arrest and long-term detention for actions that would not be cause for arrest in the United States or other countries.”
Warmbier was detained at the Pyongyang airport on the day he was supposed to depart back to China. On Feb. 29, footage of his first trial was released, providing the first images to Warmbier’s family in months, as well as his confession.
“My brother and my sister need me,” Warmbier said. “I beg that you see that I am only human, how I have made the worst mistake of my life.”
On March 16, North Korea sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor in a prison camp for his “hostile act against the state.”
According to Mirror Online, a British news source, the banner that he took off the wall read: “Let’s arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong-il patriotism!”
He was found guilty of attempting to steal this poster, which during his trial, he said was requested by a member of his church group.
Members of the United States’ government have tried negotiating with North Korean officials. Bill Richardson met with two North Korean officials the day before Warmbier’s second trial in New York, where he urged the release of Warmbier on the terms of “humanitarian grounds.”
Director of International Education at Wittenberg JoAnn Bennett said, “the reality is, you are subject to their laws” when you are abroad. “If you are arrested abroad, there is nothing Wittenberg can do and nothing the U.S. can do.”
Bennett continued by saying that if any student was in trouble, the university would try to help the student in any way that they could, but the university is technically not responsible.
To date, the University of Virginia has not issued any statements related to its students’ arrest in North Korea, as it likely has similar rules as Wittenberg, Bennett explained.
Kieren Thomas, a Wittenberg freshman and family friend of the Warmbiers, stated that he is glad to see people spreading the news about his situation.
“In high school, Otto was a very outgoing, always happy guy,” Thomas said. “He was a star soccer player and athlete. And on top of this, he was the salutatorian of his class at one of the top high schools in the nation.”
Warmbier is not the first American to be issued a long sentence in North Korea for a crime that would seem minor according to U.S. standards. In the past, U.S. officials had to visit North Korea and negotiate ways to bring the imprisoned member home.