Nearly one year after University student Otto Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea, the U.S. is continuing to call on the DPRK to release him.
“We believe that he’s being held unjustly,” acting U.S. State Department spokesperson Mark Toner said at a press briefing on March 14. “He’s gone through the criminal process and he’s been detained for, as you noted, more than a year. We believe his sentence of 15 years’ hard labor is unduly harsh — harsh, rather — for the actions that Mr. Warmbier allegedly took.”
Thursday marks the one-year anniversary of Warmbier’s sentence to 15 years of hard labor by the North Korean Supreme Court for allegedly attempting to steal a political banner from the Yanggakdo International Hotel — a particularly offensive crime in a country where a “cult of personality” surrounds the ruling Kim family.
Warmbier was arrested on Jan. 2, 2016 as he prepared to leave the country after a five-day tour with Young Pioneer Tours and his detainment was first published on Jan. 22.
He then confessed to attempting to steal the political banner at a press conference held in late February. Warmbier said he committed the “hostile act” with the support of an Ohio church, the Z Society and the Central Intelligence Agency.
It is unknown whether the North Korean government coerced Warmbier into his confession.
North Korea has previously freed American prisoners, with the most recent being Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller, who were released in November 2014.
Toner also said Tuesday that the State Department urges North Korea to pardon University student Otto Warmbier, as well as grant him “special amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds.”
Toner also addressed if Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will discuss Warmbier’s release during his first trip to Asia, which includes a stop in South Korea, stating it’s “hard to say” whether the issue will arise.
“It’s not that it’s not considered an important issue, and, of course, North Korea and its bad behavior and its continued bad behavior, frankly, is going to be a very high priority in the discussions that he’s going to have in each of his three stops,” Toner said.
Tillerson’s trip comes at a time when North Korea continues to develop its nuclear weapons capabilities.
Toner said the safety of Americans who travel abroad is one of the State Department’s highest priorities, and they would continue to keep Warmbier’s case a priority.
Toner was asked about Warmbier again during a press briefing Wednesday, stating he had no updates on the situation. He also encouraged Americans to not travel to North Korea.
“I feel obliged as a parent to advise anyone, young or old, considering a trip to North Korea, an American citizen considering a trip to North Korea, to think twice about that,” Toner said.
University spokesperson Anthony de Bruyn provided a brief statement Wednesday regarding Toner’s comments.
“The University is aware of the State Department's recent statement,” de Bruyn said. “U.Va. continues to monitor the situation and remains in contact with the Warmbier family.”