Despite a tearful appeal for forgiveness, 21-year-old American has been sentenced to 15 years of forced labor in North Korea after he tried to steal a propaganda poster from a hotel in Pyongyang on Wednesday.
Otto Warmbier, an economics student at the University of Virginia, was found guilty of “severe crimes” against the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK. The Obama administration has said that the harsh sentence is politically motivated.
“The allegations for which this individual was arrested and imprisoned would not give rise to arrest or imprisonment in the United States, or just about any country in the world,” White House Spokesperson Josh Earnest said. “It is increasingly clear the North Korean government seeks to use these U.S. citizens as pawns for a political agenda.”
In a confession managed by officials in North Korea, Warmbier was said that he committed crimes against the state of North Korea.
“The aim of my task was to harm the motivation and work ethic of the Korean people. This was a very foolish aim,” he said, according to North Korean state media. “Growing up in the United States, I was taught that the DPRK is a mysterious, ‘isolated communist nation’ from the mass media and education…[I wanted] to show my bravery in this mysterious country in order to improve my reputation and show Western victory over the DPRK.”
According to human rights advocates, Warmbier’s actions appear to be more of an innocent prank than a political act.
Still it will take concerted actions from politicians and diplomats in order to bring him home according to Greg Scarlatoiu, who heads a Washington, DC-based advocacy group called Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
“We don’t have diplomatic relations with the DPRK,” he said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “Every time that an American is taken by North Koreans, it’s always the Swedish Ambassador who looks after his or her well-being and who ensures that the detainees are in contact with their families.”
Scarlatoiu said the DPRK has often used American captives as a way to draw attention from current and former U.S. officials.
“Generally, in previous years, the main reason why North Korea has decided to arrest and detain American citizens is that their imprisonment was used for propaganda purposes at home and abroad,” he said. “The detention of American citizens also provided North Korea with an opportunity to have senior U.S. government officials or former senior U.S. government officials visit North Korea to call for their release.”
North Korea pardoned and released two American journalists, for example, following a visit from former President Bill Clinton in 2009.
“They have used, misused and abused visits by former senior government officials.” Scarlatoiu said such visits are presented to the North Korean people as evidence of the country’s international clout by saying something like, “’Because we are such a strong country and we have such strong capabilities, the Americans are wavering and they’re seeking dialogue with us. This is a fight we’re winning.’”
To Scarlatoiu, allowing DPRK to have that sort of propaganda win will be worth it if it spares Otto Warmbier from years of forced labor — although he said Americans have only served, on average, about six months imprisoned in the country before being released.
Even so, the case highlights a lack of accountability for actions carried out by the DPRK, which remains one of the world’s most isolated countries — and one of the world’s most brutal regimes.
The North Korean government has committed crimes against humanity including enslavement, extermination, murder, torture, imprisonment, sexual violence, and forced abortions.
The sentence of forced labor passed down on Warmbier is regularly used against North Koreans, according to findings from a 2014 report by the United Nations’ Commission of Inquiry. People in North Korea are forced to work on farms within the country, as well as in the mining and logging sectors of other countries with minimal pay and food rations, according to the report.
“Forced labor is an egregious human rights abuse condemned worldwide, but for many North Koreans, it’s at the core of their everyday life,” John Sifton of Human Rights Watch said in a statement earlier this month in which he called on the United Nations to develop means to address “decades of impunity” in the DPRK.
The United Nations’ Human Rights Council is expected to consider forming a panel to help address issues of accountability for human rights violations in North Korea later this month.
Also on Wednesday, the DPRK vowed to go ahead with nuclear warhead and ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, in violation of United Nations resolutions.