North Korea Sentences U.S. Student; State Department Calls for Release

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(CNN) — North Korea’s decision to sentence an American student to 15 years of hard labor is “unduly harsh,” a U.S. State Department spokesman said Wednesday as he called for the student’s release.

University of Virginia student Otto Frederick Warmbier was sentenced for crimes against the state, a North Korean official told CNN.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters Wednesday that the punishment doesn’t fit the alleged crime.

“Now that Mr. Warmbier has gone through this criminal process, we would urge the DPRK to pardon him and to grant him special amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds,” Toner said, referring to North Korea by its official acronym.

Warmbier had traveled to Pyongyang on a trip organized by Young Pioneer Tours, a China-based travel company. He was arrested on January 2, 2016, as he was about to board a plane to leave the country.

In an emotional press conference last month, the 21-year-old student admitted to attempting to steal a banner with a political slogan from his hotel in the North Korean capital. It is not known whether Warmbier made the admission under duress.

Appearing to read from a statement, he said: “I committed the crime of taking down a political slogan from the staff holding area of the Yanggakdo International Hotel.”

“I never, never should have allowed myself to be lured by the United States administration to commit a crime in this country,” he said tearfully as he begged for forgiveness.

“I wish that the United States administration never manipulate people like myself in the future to commit crimes against foreign countries. I entirely beg you, the people and government of the DPRK, for your forgiveness. Please! I made the worst mistake of my life!”

The North Korean government alleges Warmbier was encouraged to commit the “hostile act” by a purported member of an Ohio church, a secretive university organization and even the CIA.

The tour company he traveled with said on its website it is aware of his sentencing and that it should “be viewed in similar context of previous cases of Americans being sentenced” in North Korea.

On Wednesday, the State Department spokesman accused North Korea of politicizing the arrests of U.S. citizens, saying, “It’s increasingly clear from its very public treatment of these cases.”

Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller are the most recent American detainees whom North Korea has released.

Both were accused of perpetrating “hostile acts” against North Korea; Miller spent less than a year in custody after being sentenced to six years of hard labor, and Bae, facing a 15-year sentence, was held for nearly two years.

The pair secured their freedom in late 2014.

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson told The New York Times he met with two North Korean diplomats on Tuesday to lobby for Warmbier’s release.

Richardson is a longtime diplomat and a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Heightened tensions

Tensions have been particularly fraught on the Korean Peninsula in recent weeks. Some North Korea watchers have accused the regime of using detained U.S. citizens as political pawns.

On Tuesday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered tests of a nuclear warhead in the “nearest future,” state-run news agency KCNA said. The order came after the U.N. Security Council imposed tough sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear test in January and satellite launch the following month.

Last week, North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles toward the sea.

The aggravation comes during eight weeks of joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea, billed as the largest ever.