Imagine spending 15 years doing hard labour for attempting to steal a poster.
That’s the future facing University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier, 21, from Ohio in the United States, who tried to steal a North Korean political poster from his hotel during a tour group trip in January.
It has been reported the North Korean media said his crimes rested on the belief he had visited the state with the intention of “bringing down the foundation of its single-minded unity”.
He was arrested at the boarding gate of his flight home and taken into custody on January 2, 2016.
In February, a news conference was called in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, allowing Warmbier to both plead for his release and explain the reasoning behind his crime.
During the conference, Warmbier admitted he planned to give the poster to a member of his church back home in exchange for a $10, 000 used car.
He also admitted that same person promised to pay his mother $200, 000 in the event he did not return.
Warmbier told the press he accepted the monetary exchange as his family is “suffering from very severe financial difficulties.”
Warmbier is not the first American to be sentenced to North Korean hard labour.
In 2010, American Aijalon Mahli Gomes, 30, was teaching English in South Korea when he allegedly entered the North Korean border through China.
He was arrested in January and sentenced to eight years hard labour. And although Gomes was later released with US intervention, it was reported by News Week that during his time in the camps he tried to take his own life.
A second American, Robert Park of Los Angeles, California, was also admitted to a North Korean hard labour camp where he spent six weeks.
Upon his return to the US, it was reported by Chosun that Park was so anxious that he struggled to breathe and properly communicate with those around him.
According to New York Times reporter Ravi Somaiya, Park was later institutionalised with post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from severe sexual abuse he received whilst imprisoned.
Former U.S ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson, told the Associated Press he had spoken with North Korean diplomats in New York on Tuesday to request Warmbier’s release.
Richardson left the meeting with the understanding that Warmbier could be released after sentencing.
“My concern now is that the U.S.-North Korean relationship is in very low, negative ebb, and I hope that does not affect a humanitarian negotiation for the release of Otto,” Richardson said.
If he were released by North Korean officials by US intervention, Warmbier would be following in the footsteps of Aijalon Mahli Gomes and Robert Park.
Click below to watch Mamamia’s haunting interview of North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee.