There’s been little public word about what has happened to an American college student detained in North Korea, which announced last Jan. 22 it had detained Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student from suburban Cincinnati, earlier that month for alleged anti-state crime.
Warmbier, 21, who had visited North Korea with a tour group, was sentenced in March to 15 years in prison at hard labor after a televised tearful public confession to trying to steal a propaganda banner.
Diplomats inquiring about Warmbier and a Korean-American also being held have been told they were being treated under “wartime law.” It’s not clear what that means, although it could imply tougher treatment. The United States doesn’t have diplomatic relations with North Korea.
Warmbier’s parents said after his public confession last February that they hadn’t been able to communicate with him, and his father, Fred, expressed hope his son’s “sincere apology” would persuade North Korea to allow him to come home. The statement was released through the University of Virginia.
Although there has been scant news on Warmbier since his sentencing, his situation could re-emerge as Donald Trump’s administration begins dealing with North Korea. He has said he will push China to exert its influence on North Korea to bring it into line, but Trump also said during his presidential campaign that he would be willing to meet with Kim Jong Un.
There’s little doubt North Korea would like to use Warmbier to get a U.S. president to travel to “kowtow and ask for him back,” said Boston University Professor Emeritus Walter Clemens, whose extensive writings on North Korea include two books. But there’s always the hope that such a meeting could open a way to improving current tensions, he said.