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

North Korea has released video of a tearful "confession" by a University of Virginia student who has been detained in Pyongyang since early January.
February 29, 2016, 3:25pm
Photo par Kim Kwang-hyon/AP

An American student held in North Korea since early January has now confessed to "severe crimes" against the state: Trying to steal a banner with a propaganda slogan from his Pyongyang hotel.

Otto Warmbier, 21, a student at the University of Virginia, appeared in a North Korean state media broadcast on Monday, sobbing and saying, "I have made the worst mistake of my life, but please act to save me."

Warmbier was detained before boarding his flight to China over an unspecified incident at his hotel, his tour agency told Reuters in January.

— Will Ripley (@willripleyCNN)February 29, 2016

North Korea has a long history of detaining foreigners, and has used jailed American citizens in the past to exact high-profile visits from the US officials, including Al Gore, Bill Clinton, and Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper.

"I committed the crime of taking out a political slogan from the staff-only area of the Yanggakdo International Hotel," the North's KCNA news agency quoted Warmbier as telling media in Pyongyang.

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North Korea's KCNA said in January that Warmbier "was caught committing a hostile act against the state," which it said was "tolerated and manipulated by the US government."

According to a North Korean source quoted by CNN, Warmbier didn't actually steal the banner — he reportedly abandoned it because it was too big to carry away with him.

Warmbier said a "deaconess" had offered him a used car worth $10,000 if he could present a US church with the slogan as a "trophy" from North Korea, according to KCNA.

The acquaintance also said the church would pay his mother $200,000 if he was detained by the North and did not return, KCNA quoted Warmbier as saying.

"My crime is very severe and pre-planned," Warmbier was said, adding that he was impressed by North Korea's "humanitarian treatment of severe criminals like myself."

"I apologize to each and every one of the millions of the Korean people and I beg that you see how I was used and manipulated," Warmbier said.

Warmbier's family has not heard from him since his arrest, according to a statement provided to the Cavalier Daily, the University of Virginia's student-run newspaper.

"He seems to be in good health, although we won't know for sure about his condition until we have a chance to speak with him," the statement said.

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Warmbier was on a five-day New Year's tour of North Korea with a group of 20 when he was delayed at immigration before being taken away by two airport officials, according to a tour operator that had sponsored the trip.

While the majority of tourists who visit North Korea are Chinese, around 6,000 Westerners go on strictly-controlled tours inside the country each year.

Other Westerners detained in North Korea have previously confessed to crimes against the state, though many later recant their confessions after being released, saying they were made under duress.

The senior pastor at Friendship United Methodist Church in Wyoming, Ohio, told CNN that he did not know the person identified by Warmbier in the KCNA story as a deaconess there, and said Warmbier was not a member of the congregation.

According to KCNA, Warmbier also said he was encouraged in his act by a member of the Z Society, an elite philanthropic organization at the University of Virginia that he hoped to join.

An official in the university's communications office could not immediately be reached for comment.

A spokesperson for the Z Society told CNN no contact had ever been made between the secretive group and Warmbier.

Warmbier's appearance comes in the wake of a bellicose statements from the regime and a deterioration in relations with both South Korea and Japan amid pressure over its nuclear test in January. Isolated North Korea is expected to face tough new UN Security Council resolution following the nuclear test in January and a long-range rocket launch this month.

Related: North Korea Called South Korea's President An 'Old Insane Bitch'

Reuters contributed to this report

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