Updated at 04:00 p.m. EST on 2016-03-16
A North Korean court on Wednesday handed a prison term of 15 years at hard labor to detained U.S. college student Otto Warmbier for what official media called a “serious offense” against the reclusive, nuclear-armed state.
Warmbier, 21, and an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia, was taken into custody on Jan. 2 as he prepared to leave Pyongyang, capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), at the end of a five-day visit arranged by China-based Young Pioneer Tours during the New Year.
He was later charged with attempting to steal a banner bearing a propaganda slogan from his hotel room in what state media called a hostile act aimed at destroying the unity of the North Korean people.
Warmbier’s sentencing comes at a time of heightened tensions between North Korea and the United States, with U.S. forces conducting joint military exercises with South Korea, and the U.N. imposing new sanctions against Pyongyang for a recent nuclear test and missile launch.
“The accused confessed to the serious offense against the DPRK he had committed, pursuant to the U.S. government’s hostile policy toward it,” the state-controlled KCNA news service said in a statement on Wednesday.
Warmbier had committed his crime in “a bid to impair the unity of [North Korea’s] people after entering it as a tourist,” KCNA said.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) slammed Warmbier’s sentence on Wednesday, calling the judgment against him “outrageous and shocking.”
“To sentence him to 15 years of hard labor is absolutely ridiculous,” Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of HRW’s Asia Division, told RFA’s Korean Service.
“This is an indication of how completely out of line North Korea is, that they somehow assume that because a college kid did something like this, that they are somehow trying to destabilize the government.”
“It shows a degree of paranoia,” Robertson said.
“What he did would have been a misdemeanor offense in most other countries, and they should release him on humanitarian grounds and let him go home.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest called on North Korea on Wednesday to immediately free Warmbier, saying that Pyongyang uses U.S. citizens jailed in the country as "political pawns to pursue a political agenda."
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner meanwhile condemned Warmbier's sentence as "unduly harsh."
"The Department of State strongly recommends against all travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea," Toner added.
Reported by RFA’s Korean Service and Richard Finney.