On Wednesday, the Obama administration demanded North Korea release Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student who earlier that day was sentenced to 15 years of prison and hard labor.
Earlier this month, Warmbier, 21, a native of the Cincinnati, Ohio, area, tearfully apologized for stealing a political propaganda poster from his Pyongyang, North Korea, hotel room. He was in North Korea with a tour group and was arrested on Jan 2 while trying to board a plane back to the United States.
In a press briefing yesterday, White House spokesperson Josh Earnest said, “We strongly encourage the North Korean government to pardon him and grant him special amnesty and immediate release.”
“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,” Earnest said.
Earnest said that it was “increasingly clear that the North Korean government intends to use [American] citizens as pawns.”
Earnest said that Warmbier’s arrest and conviction illustrates the dangers of traveling to North Korea. Americans are allowed to travel to North Korea as tourists, but the State Department strongly advises against it.
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Warmbier was convicted on Wednesday after a one-hour trial. North Korea’s highest court said Warmbier had committed a subversive crime “pursuant to the U.S. government’s hostile policy toward [North Korea], in a bid to impair the unity of its people after entering it as a tourist.”
Hours after Warmbier was sentenced, President Obama issued a new executive order announcing sanctions against the country and various industries within it.
Young Pioneer Tours, the organization with which Warbier was traveling, posted a statement on its website saying, in part, “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.”