AN AMERICAN STUDENT HAS BEEN SENTENCED to 15 years hard labor in North Korea for attempting to “destroy the country’s unity under the direction of the US government.” His crime was that he tried to steal a propaganda poster from a restricted area in his hotel in Pyongyang. The student, a 21-year-old from Ohio named Otto Warmbier, was visiting North Korea as part of a trip by the Young Pioneers tour group, and was pulled away by airport security guards as he boarded his plane to return to China. Warmbier is a student at the University of Virginia.

In a televised, state-managed confession, Warmbier burst into tears, begging for mercy from the North Korean court, and saying he “never should have allowed myself to be lured by the United States administration to commit a crime in this country.” He said he’d been told to get the propaganda poster by the mother of a friend, who offered a used car as a trophy.


The bizarre story is pretty par for the course for North Korea, which held Warmbier four days prior to their test of a nuclear bomb, in violation of UN sanctions. Warmbier, almost certainly, was a convenient bargaining chip for Pyongyang, who has done this before: in the past, they have held journalists and tourists, sentenced them to long, harsh terms, and then have traded them in negotiations with the United States — often solely for the purpose of getting high-profile Americans like former Presidents Clinton and Carter to visit the country.

Passengers on Warmbier’s plane said he had been drinking in the hotel the night before, and that he had possibly done or said something stupid that made him a target of North Korean officials. The US strongly discourages its citizens from visiting North Korea for this very reason.

From all accounts, Warmbier is a bright student who studies economics and global sustainability. He has traveled to the other main “forbidden” country to Americans, Cuba, and is a manager of an alternative investment fund. It would appear he merely did something dumb in a place where it’s very, very ill-advised to do dumb things.