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North Korea Has Sentenced US Student Otto Warmbier to 15 Years Hard Labor

Warmbier's harsh sentencing, for stealing a propaganda sign, comes as North Korea is increasingly isolated following the its January nuclear test and last month's long-range rocket launch.

by VICE News and Reuters
Mar 16 2016, 10:40am

L'étudiant américain Otto Warmbier escorté en dehors de la Cour Suprême à Pyongyang, le 16 mars 2016. Photo par Jon Chol Jin/AP

Read and watch more about North Korea in "March Madness," a VICE News special section on the Hermit Kingdom.

North Korea's supreme court sentenced American student Otto Warmbier to 15 years of hard labor for crimes against the state, China's Xinhua news agency reported on Wednesday.

Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, was arrested in January for trying to steal a propaganda sign from his hotel in Pyongyang. He was later shown on television making a tearful confession to crimes against the state, while the US accused North Korea — formally known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) — of using him for political purposes.

"The accused confessed to the serious offense against the DPRK he had committed, pursuant to the US government's hostile policy toward it, in a bid to impair the unity of its people after entering it as a tourist," the state-controlled KCNA news agency reported on Wednesday.

International rights group Human Rights Watch condemned the sentence handed down to the student from Wyoming, Ohio. Japan's Kyodo news agency published a picture of Warmbier being led from the courtroom by two uniformed guards, with his head bowed, but visibly distressed.

"North Korea's sentencing of Otto Warmbier to 15 years hard labor for a college-style prank is outrageous and shocking, and should not be permitted to stand," Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW's Asia division, said in an emailed statement.

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Warmbier's defense attorney said the gravity of his crime was such that he would not be able to pay even with his death but proposed to the court a sentence that is reduced from the prosecution's request of a life sentence, KCNA said.

He was at the end of a five-day New Year's group tour of North Korea when he was delayed at airport immigration before being taken away by officials, according to the tour operator that had arranged the trip.

In a stage-managed confession last month, he told a media conference in Pyongyang that his crime was "very severe and pre-planned," and broke down as he described the theft as "the worst mistake of my life."

He said a member of the Friendship United Methodist Church in his hometown of Wyoming had offered him a used car worth $10,000 if he could return with the propaganda banner as a "trophy," to "weaken the ideological unity and motivation of the North Koreans."

Warmbier's sentencing comes as North Korea is increasingly isolated, with the UN Security Council imposing tough new resolutions earlier this month following the North's January nuclear test and last month's long-range rocket launch.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un this week said the North would soon test a nuclear warhead and ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, in what would be a direct violation of UN resolutions backed by its chief ally, China.

Related: Detained US Student Admits 'Very Severe' — And Totally Absurd — Crime in North Korea

North Korea has a long history of detaining foreigners and has used jailed Americans in the past to extract high-profile visits from the US, with which it has no formal diplomatic relations.

The country is also holding a Korean-Canadian Christian pastor it sentenced to hard labor for life in December for subversion, and a Korean American and three South Korean nationals.

It has previously handed down lengthy sentences to foreigners before freeing them.

While most tourists to North Korea are from China, roughly 6,000 Westerners visit annually, though the US and Canada advise against it. Most visitors are curious about life in the reclusive state and ignore critics who say their dollars prop up a repressive regime.

Earlier this month, the UN's human rights investigator for North Korea called for Kim and senior officials to be prosecuted for committing crimes against humanity.

Marzuki Darusman told the UN Human Rights Council that North Korea was devoting huge resources to developing nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction while many of its citizens went hungry and others worked in "slave-like conditions."

Related: A Canadian Pastor Has Been Jailed for Life by North Korea for So-Called Crimes Against the State