Humanitarian mission advocates for release of Otto Warmbier

U.Va. student entering 10th month of detainment in North Korea

Otto Frederick Warmbier (3rd R), a University of Virginia student who has been detained in North Korea since early January, attends a news conference in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this photo released by Kyodo February 29, 2016. Warmbier was detained for trying to steal a propaganda slogan from his Pyongyang hotel and has confessed to "severe crimes" against the state, the North's official media said on Monday. Warmbier, 21, was detained before boarding his flight to China over an unspecified incident at his hotel, his tour agency told Reuters in January. Mandatory credit REUTERS/Kyodo ATTENTION EDITORS - FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. MANDATORY CREDIT. JAPAN OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN JAPAN. - RTS8H5V © KYODO Kyodo / Reuters | Cavalier Daily

An organization known for working to release prisoners and hostages sent a humanitarian mission to North Korea last month, which advocated for the release of University student Otto Warmbier.

Warmbier is entering his 10th month of detainment in North Korea, after he was arrested in January for allegedly attempting to steal a political banner from the Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang. The North Korean Supreme Court sentenced Warmbier to 15 years of hard labor in March.

The banner — which appeared to read "Let's firmly arm ourselves with Kim Jong-il patriotism!” in partially-censored security camera footage — is considered sacrosanct in the DPRK because of its association with the country’s ruling regime. Kim Jong-il was the father of North Korea’s current Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un.

Warmbier was on a tour with a company called Young Pioneer Tours when the alleged incident occurred.

The Richardson Center for Global Engagement — named after former New Mexico governor and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Bill Richardson — sponsored a humanitarian mission to North Korea from Sept. 24-27.

Richardson Center Senior Advisor Mickey Bergman led the group, which met with senior North Korean officials, as well as Swedish Ambassador to the DPRK Torkel Stiernlöf.

Sweden acts as the United States’ Protecting Power due to the lack of a formal diplomatic relationship between the United States and the DPRK.

A release from the center said the delegation “discussed mutual humanitarian interests,” such as Warmbier, returning the remains of U.S. servicemen who died in the Korean War and assistance to areas of northeastern North Korean suffering from flooding as a result of a late-August typhoon.

“The Richardson Center delegation presented its ideas to DPRK senior officials. Frank and good discussions were held on these issues and very modest progress was made,” the release read. “The Richardson Center intends to continue its efforts and contacts on these issues of mutual humanitarian interests.”

A representative of the center did not return a request for clarification about the ideas that were presented, but Bergman told the New York Times he could not describe the discussions about Warmbier.

The Obama administration was consulted about the trip and supports the center’s humanitarian efforts, a State Department official said Sunday.

“Despite official claims that U.S. citizens arrested in the DPRK are not used for political purposes, it is increasingly clear from its very public treatment of these cases that the DPRK does just that,” the official said. “In Mr. Warmbier’s case, the Department of State continues to urge the DPRK to pardon him and grant him special amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds.”

University spokesman Anthony de Bruyn declined to comment on the trip but said the University remains in contact with Warmbier family.

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