What we know, and don't, about the American student serving 15 years hard labor in North Korea

Otto Warmbier was sentenced 15 years hard labor after college-like prank

By Sierra Pedraja - Editor

It has been more than a year since the North Korean Supreme Court sentenced 21-year-old Otto Warmbier to 15 years of hard labor over what some would call a harmless prank, and not much has been heard from him since.

There hasn’t been much new information released since the promising student and soccer player who was on the dean’s list at the University of Virginia was sentenced, although some experts initially thought he would be released within six months of sentencing.

The regrettable prank

In 2015, Warmbier was in Pyongyang travelling with a Chinese-based tour company, Young Pioneer Tours, which organizes trips into North Korea - a tour they incidentally describe as “budget travel your mother would rather you stayed away from” on their website.

In the early morning hours on New Years Day, 2016, Warmbier entered a staff-only floor of the hotel he was staying in and attempted to steal a sign with a political slogan on it, according to CNN.

Warmbier never did take the sign, because it was too large for him to carry, and so he left the floor empty handed.

The next day, as Warmbier was boarding a plane out of the country, he was arrested on the charge of "committing a hostile act against the state" according to CNN.

Nearly two months after his arrest, he was brought to trial where he gave a public confession that stunned many.

In his statement, Warmbier hinted that the United States administration manipulated him into the college-like prank, and that he had made the worst mistake of his life by following suit. The claim, many believe, is unfounded and was likely coerced, but that has yet to be proven.

"I never, never should have allowed myself to be lured by the United States administration to commit a crime in this country," Warmbier said during his trial.

"Please! I made the worst mistake of my life!"



Unswayed by Warmbier’s plea for forgiveness, the North Korean Supreme Court sentenced him to 15 years hard labor, CNN reports.

His trial only lasted an hour.


Otto Warmbier - Source: CNN

After Warmbier’s swift trial ended and his sentence had been handed down, the U.S. Department of State released a warning to Americans looking to travel to North Korea, noting that 14 U.S. citizens have been detained in the country in the last decade.

Otto Warmbier - Source: CNN

“North Korean authorities have detained those who traveled independently and those who were part of organized tours. Being a member of a group tour or using a tour guide will not prevent North Korean authorities from detaining or arresting you. Efforts by private tour operators to prevent or resolve past detentions of U.S. citizens in the DPRK have not been successful.” the release said.

The State Department listed a number of actions that could be treated as crimes in North Korea, whether they were done knowingly or unknowingly.

The lists urges travelers against showing disrespect to the country’s former or current leaders, including Kim Jon Un, having unauthorized interaction with locals, taking unauthorized photographs, and tampering with political signs or banners.

Young Pioneer Tours responded to the news of Warmbier’s arrest on their website with a statement that said they were working closely with relevant authorities to ensure a favorable outcome for Mr. Warmbier. The statement was posted more than a year ago.

You can read the statement below:

"Young Pioneer Tours are fully aware of the recent sentencing of Otto Warmbier that was announced by KCNA on Wednesday the 16th March 2016.

This should be viewed in similar context of previous cases of Americans being sentenced in the DPRK. We are continuing to work closely with relevant authorities to ensure a speedy and satisfactory outcome for Mr Warmbier.

Thus for obvious reasons we cannot currently make any comments related to what is an ongoing case.As new tensions arise, so does a questionable outcome"

As news of tensions between the United States and North Korea rise, news about the fate of Warmbier diminishes.

News of his status stopped tricking out slowly after he was sentenced, and his family has been urged to keep out of the public due to the sensitivity of the case.

As of Friday,  the Associated Press reported that the Trump administration settled on its strategy with North Korea with the message being “maximum pressure and engagement.”

On the same day, North Korea’s vice foreign minister Han Song Ryol said that President Trump’s repetitive and cartwheeling tweets about North Korea were making diplomatic relations between the two countries even harder to obtain, according to the Associated Press.

According to the report by the Associated Press, Ryol said that if the United States demonstrates any aggressive move toward North Korea, that they are ready to launch an attack of their own.



There is one person, however, who is publicly working toward a favorable outcome for Werbier.

Speaking with Local 4 exclusively, former Governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson said,

I have been in touch with the North Koreans for about six months, trying to secure the release of Otto in exchange for some private humanitarian assistance. So far, I have not had a response to a trip on my part to negotiate Otto's release."


As of March, 2017, the State Department called on North Korea for the immediate release of Warmbier, but there has not been any update to that request, according to WVIR-TV.

The United States currently has no diplomatic relations with North Korea and instead relies on the Swedish government for communications.

The Swedish Embassy is located in Pyongyang, the same city in which Warmbier was arrested in.



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