American Sentenced To 15 Years Of Hard Labor In North Korea

Filed Under: Media

A couple of weeks ago I posted about the 21 year old University of Virginia student who was being detained in North Korea for two months. He had traveled to North Korea over New Years, and was accused of trying to steal a North Korean banner from the hotel he was staying at.

If this is in fact true (which we don’t really know, since the only source of information here is the North Korean government) then he had a pretty big lapse in judgment for trying something like that in a country like North Korea.

Unsurprisingly, North Korea is blowing it out of proportion, and is accusing him of committing a “hostile act” on behalf of a church, a secretive university organization, and the CIA. If he did in fact try to steal a banner from his hotel, it’s clear it was a poorly thought out plan to bring some North Korean memorabilia back to the US, and not an act on behalf of the US government.

A couple of weeks ago the student held a press conference commending the Korean government’s humanitarian treatment of severe criminals like him, and complimenting their fair and square legal procedures. Here’s the video of that:

Well, there’s now a follow up to the story. The 21 year old had his day in North Korea’s “fair and square” court, and has received his sentence.

For his crimes, Otto Warmbier has been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea. Per The Wall Street Journal:

North Korea charged him with subversion, calling the alleged theft an antiregime plot formed with the “connivance of the U.S. administration.”

Mr. Warmbier was convicted and sentenced at North Korea’s Supreme Court on Wednesday, the Korean Central News Agency reported. The report said he “confessed to the serious offense against the DPRK he had committed, pursuant to the U.S. government’s hostile policy toward it, in a bid to impair the unity of its people after entering it as a tourist.”

Here’s a video of him from his sentencing earlier today:

Yow! Hopefully the sentence can be negotiated down, and this is just North Korea trying to prove a point. I wouldn’t count on it, though…

Bottom line

The reason I’m posting about this is because I think it raises some interesting questions as to the risks of traveling to some of the more extreme countries out there. Everyone has different tolerance levels, and I’m not sure where I draw the line personally.

I know many Americans who have traveled to North Korea without issue, and had a nice time. They’re even quick to defend North Korea. Personally it’s not a place I’d feel safe going, given the government’s record of fabricating crimes and having no sort of legal process.

At the same time I have no problem traveling to several Middle Eastern countries which have archaic laws and strict punishments, even though they’re rarely enforced. But I still feel safe in them.

Would you ever travel to North Korea? Where do you draw the line when it comes to traveling to countries with extreme governments? 

  1. Everyone has to look at themselves in the mirror. I’d have a tough time traveling to UAE/Qatar/Saudi Arabia but others clearly are okay with it. I have been to Israel but am sure some people would not want to go there.

    As far as this student – i feel horribly for him and his family, but cant help to think that he should have known better.

  2. 15 years is a long time to think about the crime. No doubt the recent U.S. & South Korea military drills contributed to North Korea’s sentencing of this kid. He’s caught in the middle of an inopportune time.

  3. I’m racking my brain to figure out how this idiot could have avoided his situation. Just can’t put my finger on it.

  4. @Alex, don’t feel horrible for this student. I’m tired of people doing stupid things like this. @Lucky, the only big lapse of judgment was having gone to North Korea in the first place, and the family members that let him do it. This stuff is in the news all the time. Going to NK is downright dangerous, and I’m sure he was told that, but probably chose to ignore it. Hopefully others learn from it. No sympathy on my part.

  5. No sympathy for this idiot. Too many times people get the “it was a mistake” “people do stupid things” excuse which has eroded society as a whole cause there are too many “passes” given out for lack of personal responsibility and common sense. Firstly don’t go to a country without considering the local customs and laws especially when its a country known for extreme punishments and a general dislike of Americans. If you insist on going there be on good behavior. Also 10000000% guarantee this idiot was thinking I’m going to steal this poster and show off to my bros on facebook/instagram etc how cool I am cause I stole a poster from North Korea. Seriously getting arrested and possibly dying in a totalitarian regime is not worth a few likes on social media. (google how many people died taking a selfie with a gun and its surprisngly high)

  6. Perusing over some of the things people are posting about this guy, and its disgusting to see the lack of sympathy in so many people. Comments like “he’s an idiot, he got what he deserved”, and other such comments of similar attitude. Its disgusting. Its horrible. These people have no heart. So because someone does something that isn’t too bright, he deserves 15 years of imprisonment and torture? Really? You don’t think for one second what this actually means for this young man? I have sympathy for people who make mistakes, like this young man. I do not have sympathy for evil heartless people who say or do evil heartless and cruel things. Some people don’t have *humanity*

  7. A large number of Americans visit North Korea on tours without issue. So something happened with this guy, it is tough to know what.

    Before people jump all over North Korea’s sentencing laws, think about how America jails poorer young minorities for long periods for minor crimes like small drug possession.

    I don’t agree with jailing someone for a long period for stealing a sign/poster (if that is what he did). But you got to respect the laws of the country you visit. It is difficult to imagine the thousands of Americans who go to North Korea without issue were lucky, and this bro was unlucky. He probably did something stupid that rich white kids get a slap on the wrist for here, and get hard labor there.

  8. @Brian, of course he doesn’t deserve it, but this is stupid any way you see it. And it’s a 15-year hard labor mistake. And I still have no sympathy. You know why? Because you only need an IQ of a banana to know that people, news organizations and the state department are telling you NOT to go to NK, yet you go anyway, and what happens now? The state department and the US government have to get involved, waste resources and probably make secret monetary concessions to a regime that is pursuing a nuclear weapons and starves its people. He is being held for ransom and he is the only one at fault for it. This isn’t any different than when officials tell you not to go in the water because there is a hurricane, and some Darwin Award recipient thinks the waves are just perfect for surfing, and now some lifeguard with a wife and kids has to go into the water and risk his life to save the stupid moron’s ass. So no, no sympathy. If he gets released, great. If he doesn’t, hopefully others will learn not to be that dumb.

  9. He won’t spend 15 years in a North Korean Gulag.

    The annual death rate there is 50%. No one could survive 15 years.

    No doubt when the propaganda value of this wears off, NK will trade him back in exchange for dozens of their spies and a few hundred Million dollars, which this administration will be quite happy to give them. I’m quite sure the NKs know what was paid to get Bowe Bergdahl back.

    “I know many Americans who have traveled to North Korea without issue, and had a nice time. They’re even quick to defend North Korea”…

    Seriously? A country where the “Dear Leader” had his family members torn apart by crazed dogs,

    and top officials are publicly executed on a whim

    and people visiting there have a “nice time”?

    Some of the ME countries may have archaic laws, but only NK has allowed 2 million of it’s citizens to starve to death rather than accept International food aid due to Governmental malfeasance in regulating agriculture.

    There is a general rule on the Internet that when comparisons are made to Nazi Germany it is the end of rational discussion. This rule does not apply to NK, where the level of repression, torture, extrajudicial execution, and gulags filled with hundreds of thousands of political prisoners, is certainly the equal of Nazi Germany.

  10. There have been enough incidents with Americans being arrested in North Korea based on all kind of false & fabricated reasons. So what if he stole a banner from a hotel ? The punishment needs to fit the crime. How many times have we stolen a towel, an ashtray, a bathrobe rope or other stuff from a hotel. What it comes down to is people using their good judgement. Why would anyone with a sound mind want to visit a hellhole like north Korea or the Iranian border and risk getting done in for spying or who knows what else. There are so many beautiful destinations in this world. People should focus on those destinations first before considering a hellhole like north korea. All these organized tours there serve no purpose and no meaning. No good comes from them.

  11. I’m just waiting for something similar happening with the naive Americans (and every nationality actually) that ‘love to visit cuba’. With a murderous regime opressing their people. That same regime protecting murderers that committed crimes in the US.
    I guess ‘they just don’t know’ (probably don’t care) of the nasty stuff happening there, until they end like this little boy in North Korea.

  12. @Brian: Understand your point and agree that the sentence he got was horrible. However, he got what he was looking for. I am sorry but he took the risk to go to NK and his behavior was very inappropriate. To be clear, his behavior would not be acceptable even here in America so no excuse for what he did. He played stupid so he should have known the consequences. It was his choice. He was not forced to go there and nobody forced him to steal whatever banner he did. I feel really bad for people that get in trouble when they have no way to avoid it. In this case it was all his fault. Also, like it or not, each country has its own rules. If you don’t agree with them don’t go there. If you decide to go there, abide by their laws.

  13. There are so many reasons not to go to places like North Korea. Beyond the obvious political reasons what happens if you get injured or sick? Lose your passport or money? Hard to imagine what his motivation was for going there at all. Not one bad decision but many.

  14. @BKK Cuba and North Korea aren’t even in the same ballpark when it comes to kidnapping US tourists for ransom. Cuba’s main source of income is tourism and people sending money to relatives. Cuba oppresses it’s own people but isn’t interested in developing a reputation of being unsafe for tourists, especially now.

  15. of course he deserved it… no sympathy when you go to sh** hole countries…. u gonna be surprised when some idiot gets shot dead whilst in iraq or syria? no I would be surprised if you returned alive…

  16. Don’t assume he actually tried to steal a sign. He may well have, but just don’t believe anything the NK government puts out. The mistake is not trying or not trying to break the law. There are actually no laws in places like that. It’s having been to NK in the first place. I personally think he was singled out as American and kidnapped for ransom. Anyone who goes there is on their own.

  17. @BBK lots of canadians go to cuba all the time with no issues… more Canadians get killed in Cancun for example….. I think Cuba is safer than any part of mexico any day…..

  18. I doubt he will serve much of his sentence. North Korea has a history of arresting Westerners, convicting them of outrageous crimes, and then negotiating their release. See, for instance, Bill Clinton’s visit to North Korea to secure the release of two journalists:

    Why would North Korea keep playing this game? Probably because it gets them attention. If a former President of the United States can be compelled to go to North Korea, that increases the government’s legitimacy. They can use that to remind their people how powerful and important they are. And to remind the rest of the world how close their finger always is to the trigger.

  19. As someone with higher than average knowledge about the DPRK, if this sentence gets carried out… Strike that, if it WOULD be carried out like stated, he very possibly would be getting a death sentence.
    But I’m sure the government does not want an even more magnified international spotlight on their imprisonment camps. So I doubt this will be carried out.
    Yes, he did something stupid, but “media” channels like VICE and (sorry) American ignorance propagate such behaviour as investigative and cool, taunting an oppressive and terrible regime.
    The comments above still reflect that ignorance, BTW. Yes, DPRK has a lot of problems, but I don’t think it’s any of our business to be commenting on their lives and politics.

  20. Sounds almost as bad as the United States. Go to Luisiana, and possession of heroin (first offense) gets you *minimum* 4 years of hard labor, and much, much more than that for larger amounts or if there is intent to distribute. (minimum 10 years at hard labor). That’s only if you have no criminal record. If you have three prior felonies (even if they are just possession of drugs) you get life in prison, no parole.

    And yes, the punishment is hard labor. You read that right. Gotta love our freedoms here.

  21. @mike, @donna: +1. For an American to show willful disregard for State Department travel advisories is selfish, dangerous, and obviously has consequences. Furthermore, while his punishment is clearly harsh by American standards (and perhaps he may even be innocent), that’s really not relevant since he’s in a foreign country.

    @lucky: You mention that you have no problem traveling to several Middle Eastern countries because you feel safe in them. I can’t help but wonder how eager you’d be to visit the Middle East (especially given their stance on homosexuality) if they didn’t offer such over-the-top luxury. Don’t get me wrong, an in-flight shower has appeal, but personally that’s not worth the potential for what could happen to me if I was spotted holding hands with my husband.

  22. Humanity doesn’t advance if everyone stayed in their glass bubbles. If journalists refused to go to Syria, even though it is clearly fool hardy, we would never know what was going on there.

    Sometimes people do foolish things and yet inspire others by their passion.

  23. Can the guards decide in unison which direction to pull the poor chap in?

    BTW, I wouldn’t be so quickly to judge his intelligence, when you can’t trust the story.

  24. I think Kenneth Bae, the Korean-American who was doing missionary work in N. Korea, was sentenced the same amount of time. They ended up releasing him within 2 years.

  25. If this kid did actually try to steal the sign then I have ZERO sympathy, because you have to be incredibly stupid to think that was a good idea in a country like North Korea. If he didn’t do it I feel bad for him and hope he gets released soon, but everyone assumes a risk when going there because we have seen this time and time again.You don’t have to do anything wrong to get thrown in prison in north korea. Bottom line stay the heck out of North Korea and don’t expect any help if you go there thinking nothing can happen to you.

    In terms of some middle eastern countries that have severe laws and violate human rights I think before you spend money there you should take a hard look at the regime your dollars are going to support. Certain places make money off tourism and you may go there because its a nice hotel, but understand you with your money are contributing to keeping oppressive regimes going and the continued violation of human rights. Obviously this doesn’t apply to all middle eastern countries and each person has to ask themselves to what extent are they comfortable.

  26. Simply outrageous for this full fledged ADULT to have gone to a country like that and not been informed to be on his best behavior. He “did” a stupid thing and he will pay dearly for it. This is a place that couldn’t care less about human life. What does hard labor mean??? SCARY SCARY STUFF!!! If his parents didn’t give him the low down before he went there, then they are ignorant. I laugh when people think this country is having a tough time with squabbles and punching at a convention. The world can be a lot more cruel. I lived in Russia in 1993. I walked freely wherever I wanted, but I didn’t pull off stupid stunts. It was/is a FAR cry from North Korea though.

  27. I’m amazed by how many people who clearly understand the insanity of the North Korean government assume that this kid did anything. It is at least equally likely that he just got set up as a political pawn as it is that he took something as a prank. In fact, I might assume that the average person who goes there is so acutely aware of the situation as to be extremely unlikely to steal something from a hotel room.

    Am I saying he didn’t do it? Of course I’m not. I have no idea. None of us do. I commend Lucky for (smartly) pointing out the fact that all we know about the situation is what the North Korean government has told us.

    I’m neither saying that I think travel to North Korea is wise nor that I feel any sympathy for this kid if he did it, but we don’t know and can’t reasonably find the truth. I wish that people would not be so quick to lap up the North Korean government’s version of the story though. Condemning this kid as though he definitely did it is as intelligent as believing it when the North’s government says that it’s people are the happiest and most prosperous on earth. Slow down, people.

  28. What the ??!??…He Should’ve gotten 20 years !!! Fancy carrying on like this .. Start playing by societies Rules … Typical self-endulgent Y-Gen t*^% cr*ppy behavior … Imagine doing this type of thing in Singapore..? It’d be 150 lashes with the Bamboo Rattan ! ..(& that’s receding one Whack per day!) Bring back the Cain that’s why we gotta do with these self-entitled types

  29. Thanks @janyyc for one of the few sensible comments in this thread.

    I’ve been to North Korea five times. I’ve also been to lots of other places that are perceived as oppressive, unsafe and receive generally bad press in America – although incidentally, not necessarily in Europe. I’m not a defender of the North Korean regime by any stretch. But I believe in seeing things my own eyes and doing my own research, and not letting the (very biased) mainstream media tell me “what I need to know.”

    I’ve spent considerable time studying the DPRK. Most news about North Korea is pure fabrication. Oftentimes, the source is no other than South Korea. They have an entire department working on propaganda, just like the North. Positive news about the DPRK just don’t get airtime. It doesn’t sell.

    We all work in different fields. Have you ever dealt with the press? Have you ever seen a news report on your field of expertise? How did you feel? Most likely, you felt that the press over-simplified or made a caricature of the situation. Perhaps they distorted the story. Perhaps you got interviewed and your quotes were taken out of context. So, what makes you feel that reporting on the DPRK is accurate and trustworthy? Let’s not take things literally.

    This kid did something insanely stupid. The mistake wasn’t to travel to the DPRK – it was to break the law (presumably while being drunk.) I know plenty of people who have stolen stuff from North Korean hotels as souvenirs. Those who got caught got nothing more than a slap on the wrist. A propaganda banner is a very different thing, though. According to the DPRK law and culture, defacing such artifacts is indeed a hostile act against the regime. Every state, every country, has its fair share of absurd laws.

    Trashing the kid and insulting him is a primitive, uneducated, animal like response. He did something stupid. He’s paying for it. Let’s wish for a speedy resolution.

    The 15 year hard labor sentence is pretty much “standard.” History shows that he’s extremely unlikely to do any actual hard labor – most likely just light but mind numbing agricultural work. He’s also extremely unlikely to be incarcerated for 15 years – the DPRK is just waiting for a high-level representative of the US government to pay a visit, for propaganda purposes. Also, he’ll be treated decently – nothing to do with the true camps where survival rates are low.

    The DPRK is using Otto for domestic propaganda, and as leverage to get worldwide airtime and news coverage. Insulting the victim is justifying the DPRK’s actions. That’s exactly what the government wishes for.

    Let’s be grateful that we live in countries that mostly value freedom. Anybody who hasn’t experienced oppression doesn’t understand the true value of freedom. At least, Otto Warmbier had the guts to embark on a life changing experience. Let’s wish him a safe and prompt return. He’s a college student with a family and friends.

  30. @Pat+, have YOU experienced oppression? Because if you’ve been to DPRK 5 times and you say most of the news about DPRK is pure fabrication either you didn’t learn much by going 5 times, or you’re downright delusional. Let me tell you something. I grew up in Cuba. I mean I grew up there, not left when I was 3 years old. I lived there until I was 18. If you think that visiting 5 times and getting a curated version of life in the DPRK gives you a taste of how dictatorships work, try giving up your U.S. citizenship and moving to DPRK. And by the way, congratulations on visiting 5 times and financially supporting a regime that literally starves its people to death.

  31. North Korea is definitely on my “do not fly to” list. Why would I want to give any credibility and money to Kim?

    For those who think he deserves what he got because he didn’t respect the “laws” of North Korea…do you honestly think there are “laws” there? We have absolutely no idea what he did or did not do, North Korea could have just chosen to make an example out of him (who knows, maybe Kim didn’t get high score on NBA 2K16 that day). So yes, I personally wouldn’t have gone to North Korea and it was a big risk to do that, but to try to defend North Korea’s actions in this situation based on their history is not being reasonable.

  32. Before going to NK you have to ask yourself two questions.

    First : Will you be able to help people by going there (collecting informations, humanitarian crisis etc….) ?

    Second : Do you want to participate in the dictatorship by giving them money (travel expenses) ?

    After, you’re free to do whatever you want to do, that’s you and your consciousness.

  33. Well he lucky he got hands.
    If it was saudi arabia they would have cut his hands off.
    He so lucky he will have hands when he go free from NK.
    But lucky you be careful with your homosexuality and middle east could end you up in an arab jail and trust me not a nice prace.

  34. After reading –Without you there is no us.–I would not travel to North Korea. I did find the book fascinating, depressing and I couldn’t put it down.

  35. None of you know if this is really or true or if it was fabricated by the North Korean government. So when you make judgments, think about that. After all, the Northern Koreans are always honest aren’t they?

  36. The only thing to learn from this: NEVER EVER, under no circumstances, travel to North Korea. I thought people would have already understood that, but apparently not.

    As for the comments saying he was stupid to steal this banner and otherwise would have been safe: there is no way to tell whether he really did that. It is equally possible that the dear leader just ordered to arrest a random American (think sanctions negotiations), and this guy was unlucky to be the first one they found.There is no way to stay safe in places like North Korea.

  37. @Billl .. This sentence ‘Certain places make money off tourism and you may go there because its a nice hotel, but understand you with your money are contributing to keeping oppressive regimes going and the continued violation of human rights.’


    those places will never receive a penny of my support until the regimes are abolished.

  38. No Claus – the only thing to learn from this is to respect the laws of whatever country you chose to visit and if you’re stupid enough to break those rule, don’t cry like a baby when caught redhanded.

  39. @ josh, if you were to travel to a Mideast country and hold hands with your husband in public, you would be demonstrating an amazing level of disrespect for your host country and its’ people. I am a gay person and I would support whatever punishment you were to receive. You clearly should stay home and not embarrass your country by behaving in an unacceptable and disrespectful manner in a foreign land .

  40. @Nev
    That’s absolutely ridiculous. Despite Singapore being somewhat of an authoritarian society, the worst you would get is a mere slap on the wrist for committing theft.

  41. The evening world news last night showed the hotel security video which does show him taking down the “propaganda” banner from the hotel , and stated that he did it to bring back to his “church community” in exchange for a used car. The reason why seems a bit strange to me but the video does show he did commit the crime, as stupid as it was……

  42. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes. Congratulations kid. You hit the jackpot. How many more Americans are going to have to get locked up and serve hard time for petty crimes before we stop trying to visit that country? Just stop going there. Period!

  43. @Ken – you completely misread my comment. I have no intention on visiting the Middle East anytime soon, for reasons beyond being gay. My point is that I think @Lucky conflates luxury with safety, and that’s a very dangerous thing to do.

  44. Listened to “Stranger in A Strange Land” by Iron Maiden when reading this post – felt like the song matched his situation…

  45. 21st century and people are still very ignorant by beliving that NK executed by anti-aircraft gun, hungry dog or whatever while in fact, just few months later, those executed guys show up on television or pay a foreign visit. I must admit that the West propaganda is perfect because it ruins people brain by believing into it like a religion.
    The lesson of this is never going to NK but American and other citizen of any country in the world should not act like an asshole, hovering around and trying to do all the shit they want…like Government of US. They must know that all EU countries are like pet to US so American may have some kind of privileges but not in NK. They will punish you if you commit crime.
    Clearly this guy was not simply take down the sign but he attempted to trespass into banned area like a spy of US and damaging government property.
    I know there are quite a lot of Soviet spies and Russian Spies have been executed or long-term jail by US so it is understandable when this motherfucker js jailed for long.

  46. Don’t go to N Korea!!! Are people that f#^;%n stupid???
    And yes there is a video clearly showing the crime being commited.
    Still, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.

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