North Korea says detained US student confessed to stealing political slogan

North Korean soldiers patrolling next to the border fence near the town of Sinuiju across from the Chinese border town of Dandong on Feb 10, 2016.
North Korean soldiers patrolling next to the border fence near the town of Sinuiju across from the Chinese border town of Dandong on Feb 10, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (REUTERS) -  An American student held in North Korea since early January was detained for trying to steal a propaganda slogan from his Pyongyang hotel and has confessed to “severe crimes” against the state, the North’s official media said on Monday (Feb 29).

North Korea has a long history of detaining foreigners, and has used detained US citizens in the past to extract high-profile visits from the United States, with which it has no formal diplomatic relations.

Otto Warmbier, 21, a student at the University of Virginia, was detained before boarding his flight to China over an unspecified incident at his hotel, his tour agency told Reuters in January.

“I committed the crime of taking out a political slogan from the staff-only area of the Yanggakdo International Hotel,” the North’s KCNA news agency quoted Warmbier as telling foreign and domestic media in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

Warmbier said an acquaintance who belonged to a church had offered him a used car worth US$10,000 (S$14,089) if he could present the church with the slogan as a “trophy” from North Korea, according to the agency.

The acquaintance also said the church would pay his mother US$200,000 if he was detained by the North and did not return,  KCNA quoted Warmbier as saying.

“My crime is very severe and pre-planned,” he was quoted as saying, adding that he was impressed by North Korea’s “humanitarian treatment of severe criminals like myself.”

Other Westerners detained in North Korea have previously confessed to crimes against the state.

North Korea’s state media said in January that Warmbier “was caught committing a hostile act against the state”, which it said was “tolerated and manipulated by the US government”.

Warmbier was on a five-day New Year’s tour of North Korea with a group of 10 other people and was delayed at immigration before being taken away by two airport officials, according to a tour operator that had sponsored the trip.

While the vast majority of tourists to North Korea are from China, roughly 6,000 Westerners visit the country annually, though the governments of the US and Canada advise against it.

Most are adventure-seekers curious about life behind the last sliver of the iron curtain, and ignore critics who say their dollars prop up a repressive regime.