Yellow Ribbon Project

North Korea Sentences American Student to 15 Years of Hard Labor

American student Otto Warmbier is escorted at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang, North Korea, on March 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin)

North Korea has sentenced a University of Virginia student who was in the reclusive country on an organized tour to 15 years’ hard labor for allegedly stealing a regime propaganda sign.

Otto Warmbier, 21, was seized by North Korean officials on Jan. 2 before his flight was supposed to take off from Pyongyang. He was paraded before cameras last month for a tearful “confession,” admitting he took down a banner that was hanging in the hall of his hotel. “I made the worst mistake of my life,” he said.

North Korea claimed the student took the poster as a “hostile act” to disturb DPRK unity at the behest of the CIA, a college group and a church in his home state of Ohio.

“The allegations for which this individual was arrested and imprisoned, would not give rise to arrest or imprisonment in the United States or in just about any other country in the world,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters today.

“Now, despite official claims that U.S. citizens arrested in North Korea are not used for political purposes, it is increasingly clear that the North Korean government seeks to use these U.S. citizens as pawns to pursue a political agenda,” Earnest said. “This underscores the risks associated with traveling to North Korea.”

But now that the damage is done, he added, “we strongly urge the North Korean government to pardon him and grant him special amnesty and immediate release.”

State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters the department “believes that the sentence is unduly harsh for the actions Mr. Warmbier allegedly took.”

Ohio Gov. John Kasich had asked former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has taken up other cases of Americans detained abroad, to try to reason with North Korean officials and get Warmbier released.

Richardson told The New York Times that the harsh sentence was an “unfortunate development” but not surprising, given Pyongyang’s pattern of dealing with American captives. “Hopefully a prelude to negotiations that might lead to a release on humanitarian grounds.”

Warmbier graduated from Wyoming High School as salutatorian in 2013, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, and studied economics and global sustainability at UVA.

“North Korea should…let him return to his family here in Ohio,” Kasich said today. “His detention was completely unjustified and the sentence North Korea imposed on him is an affront to concepts of justice.

“Continuing to hold him only further alienates North Korea from the international community. I urge the Obama administration to redouble its efforts to secure his release and ask all Ohioans to continue to lift up Otto and his family in prayer in support of his swift, safe return.”