US student Otto Warmbier has been given 15 years hard labour in North Korea for crimes against the state.
Warmbier, 21, was arrested for trying to steal a propaganda sign from a hotel while visiting North Korea in January.
He later appeared on state TV apparently confessing and saying a church group had asked him to bring back a “trophy” from his trip. North Korea sometimes uses the detention of foreigners as a means of exerting pressure on its adversaries.
The 15-year sentence is high compared to those given to foreigners in the past. This could be due to the particularly high tensions at the moment between North Korea and the US, he says. North Korean state news agency KCNA said Warmbier was convicted under an article of the criminal code relating to subversion. The verdict was handed down by the Supreme Court. Warmbier, a student at the University of Virginia, was arrested on 2 January as he was trying to leave North Korea. He was accused of committing “hostile acts”.
KCNA said at the time he had gone to North Korea “to destroy the country’s unity” and that he had been “manipulated” by the US government.
At the end of February, at a tearful press conference in Pyongyang, he said he had “committed the crime of taking down a political slogan from the staff holding area of the Yanggakdo International Hotel”. “The aim of my task was to harm the motivation and work ethic of the Korean people. This was a very foolish aim,” he was quoted as saying. He said it was the “worst mistake” of his life.
The sentencing comes a day after veteran US diplomat Bill Richardson met North Korean officials at the UN in New York to try to push for Warmbier’s release. Mr Richardson has previously been involved in negotiations to secure the release of Americans from North Korea detention.
North Korea has ramped up its hostile rhetoric in recent weeks, after the UN imposed some of its toughest ever sanctions. The sanctions were a response to the North conducting its fourth nuclear test and launching a satellite into space, which was seen as a covert test of banned missile technology.
Pyongyang has also been angered by the US and South Korea carrying out their annual military drills, which this year involve some 315,000 personnel. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un has threatened “indiscriminate” nuclear attacks against the US and the South, and has said his country will soon test a nuclear warhead. However analysts still doubt whether the North has the capacity to carry out a nuclear attack.