North Korea has sentenced a 21-year-old US student to 15 years’ hard labour following his “confession” to stealing a piece of political propaganda during his trip at the request of his church in Wyoming, Ohio.

Otto Warmbier, a third-year economics student at the University of Virginia, was arrested on 2 Jan. when he was about to board a flight from North Korea to China. He was accused of trying to steal an item bearing a piece of propaganda from the Yanggakdo International Hotel in the capital, Pyongyang where he was staying.

Following his arrest, Warmbier made an emotional confession to the crime at a news conference broadcast on state television.

At the conference, Warmbier said a “deaconess” of his Friendship United Methodist Church in Ohio had promised to give him a used car worth USD 10,000 if he brought back a propaganda sign from his North Korea trip. However, the senior pastor at the church said he did not know the person identified by Warmbier as a deaconess there, and said Warmbier was not a member of the congregation.

North Korea’s state news agency, KCNA, said Warmbier has been convicted under an article of the criminal code relating to subversion. The verdict was handed out 16 March by the country’s Supreme Court.

According to KCNA, Warmbier said: “The aim of my task [to steal the trophy] was to harm the motivation and work ethic of the Korean people. This was a very foolish aim.”

On 15 March, Bill Richardson, a long-time American diplomat and former governor of New Mexico who has visited Pyongyang a number of times, met with two North Korean officials in New York to urge Warmbier’s release on humanitarian grounds.

Human Rights Watch condemned the verdict: “North Korea’s sentencing of Otto Warmbier to 15 years hard labour for a college-style prank is outrageous and shocking,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW’s Asia division, in a statement.

North Korea has a history of detaining foreigners and later making a public display of their “confessions”, as in the case of Korean Canadian pastor, Hyeun-soo Lim who was sentenced in December to life in prison following an admission in a Pyongyang church of committing crimes against the state.

He was convicted of numerous charges including an attempt to overthrow the government and attempting to establish a religious state. Lim’s sentencing by the Supreme Court also followed the failure to win his release through diplomatic channels after Canadian consular officials in New York spoke informally with North Korean delegates at the UN.

Lim, a head pastor at the Light Presbyterian Church in Toronto who had visited North Korea more than a hundred times on humanitarian work, was suspected of being quarantined during the Ebola crisis when he first went missing. But it was revealed in February 2015 that he had been detained by the North Korean government.

In July he was made to read out a public confession at a government-sanctioned church in Pyongyang. Usually North Korea pronounces a sentence within weeks after such a confession – as in the case of Warmbier – but Lim’s sentencing came five months later. A source told World Watch Monitor that “diplomatic efforts to secure Lim’s release had most likely failed”.

Previous case of life sentence

In May 2014, North Korea sentenced South Korean pastor Kim Jong-Wook to a life of hard labour. As a missionary, Kim operated from the Chinese border city of Dandong, where he provided shelter, food and other aid to North Korean refugees who crossed the border seeking relief from the famine in their country. Kim also taught the refugees about the Bible.

North Korean agents infiltrated his network and convinced him to visit their country, which he did 8 Oct., 2013. Kim was expecting to find out what had happened to some refugees with whom he had lost contact but instead he was arrested, interrogated and possibly tortured.

In February 2014, Kim told assembled North Korean television cameras he had spied for the South Korean government, had given money to North Koreans to set up 500 underground churches and attempted to overthrow the regime. After a trial in May 2014 North Korea’s state media reported that prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Kim, but the court imposed the life sentence after the pastor had “sincerely repented”.

Enemies of the state

North Korea links Christianity with South Korea and the United States — both considered to be enemies of the state. Ever since North Korean Christians fled communist oppression and made a run for the South during the Korean War in the early 1950s, they have been seen as traitors. After the war, tens of thousands of Christians were arrested, forced into hard labour or put to death. Christians who stayed live their faith in secret.

North Korea has, for the 14th consecutive year, been considered the most difficult place in the world to be a Christian, according to the 2016 Open Doors World Watch List.