PYONGYANG, Korea, Democratic People’s Republic Of—North Korea presented a detained American student before the media on Monday in Pyongyang, where he acknowledged and apologized for attempting to steal a political banner—at the behest, he said, of a member of a church who wanted it as a “trophy”—from a staff-only section of the hotel where he had been staying.
North Korea announced late last month it had arrested Otto Warmbier, a 21-year-old University of Virginia undergraduate student. It said that after entering the country as a tourist he conducted an anti-state crime with “the tacit connivance of the U.S. government and under its manipulation.”
No details of what kind of charges or punishment Warmbier faces were immediately released.
According to Warmbier’s statement Monday, he wanted the banner with a political slogan on it as a trophy for the church member, who was the mother of a friend.
In previous cases, people who have been detained in North Korea and given a public confession often recant those admissions after their release.
He was arrested while visiting the country with Young Pioneer Tours, an agency specializing in travel to the North, which is strongly discouraged by the U.S. State Department. He had been staying at the Yanggakdo International Hotel, which is located on an island in a river that runs through Pyongyang.
It is common for sections of tourist hotels to be reserved for North Korean staff and off-limits to foreigners.
Warmbier is a native of Ohio, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, while campaigning in New Hampshire as a Republican presidential candidate, called the arrest “inexcusable.” Kasich has urged President Barack Obama to “make every effort to secure Mr. Warmbier’s immediate release and keep (his) family constantly apprised.”
Kasich said North Korea should either provide evidence of the alleged anti-state activities or release Warmbier.
In his comments, Warmbier said he was offered a used car worth $10,000 by a member of the church. He said the church member told him the slogan would be hung on its wall as a trophy. He also said he was told that if he was detained and not returned, $200,000 would be paid to his mother in a way of charitable donations.
He said he accepted the offer because his family is “suffering from very severe financial difficulties.”
“I started to consider this as my only golden opportunity to earn money,” he said, adding that if he ever mentioned the involvement of the church, “no payments would come.”
North Korea regularly accuses Washington and Seoul of sending spies to overthrow its government to enable the U.S.-backed South Korean government to control the Korean Peninsula. Some foreigners previously arrested in the North have read statements of guilt that they later said were coerced.