UVA third-year Otto Warmbier, 21, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea March 16 for allegedly attempting to steal a propaganda poster from the Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang, where he was staying as part of a tourist group arranged by Young Pioneer Tours.
Todd Sechser, an associate professor in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at the University of Virginia, says that since 2009, about one or two American citizens have been detained every year by North Korea for political reasons and he outlines the main goals in such arrests.
“The North Koreans typically gain two things from these episodes,” Sechser says in an e-mail. “First, usually there is a visit from a high-level U.S. official or former president. Second, North Korea often claims an apology from the U.S. negotiator, which then is usually denied by the United States. Both the visit and alleged apology allow the North Korean government to score political points at home for antagonizing the United States.”
Warmbier was shown tearfully admitting to the attempted theft in a North Korean court. According to CNN, he had wanted the poster as a trophy for a church member in Ohio, and allegedly said the Z Society, a secret society at UVA, had encouraged him to steal the poster in exchange for membership.
The West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church says in a press release, “We hope and pray for forgiveness by the North Korea officials for any perceived transgressions by the young man, and for his quick and safe return to his family.” The release adds that other comments would not be “appropriate or helpful” at this time.
Despite Warmbier’s confessions, Sechser says it is difficult to confirm whether he actually committed a crime or not.
“It is standard practice for North Korea to parade detainees in front of the media. Warmbier’s confession was undoubtedly coerced. Prior detainees have reported that their North Korean captors choreographed their confessions down to the smallest detail,” Sechser says.
He also notes that the charges against Warmbier are “unusual,” with most Americans detained for illegal entry or religious activity.
Although the 21-year-old faces a 15-year sentence, Sechser says that even in cases with heavy sentences, “these detentions usually last a few months or less.”
Friends of Warmbier’s declined comment in keeping with the family’s wishes for privacy.