Story by Taylor Hodges, Reporter
Photo courtesy of NY Daily News
It’s no secret that North Korea isn’t a friend of the West, and that may ring more true due to an American student being sentenced to 15 years in a hard-labor camp after trying to steal a propaganda banner from the hotel he was staying at. His trial, with the North Korean Supreme Court, lasted a mere hour.
According to Daily Mail, University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier traveled to North Korea through a tour agency called the Young Pioneer Tours. At the end of his stay Warmbier tried to steal a propaganda banner from a restricted part of the hotel he was staying at due to being pressured by a church member that was friends with his mother. This church member offered Warmbier a used car worth $10,000 if he was successful, and if he happened to be detained, $200,000 would be paid to his mother in the form of a charitable donation. It’s rumored that Warmbier’s family was struggling financially and that’s why he chose to partake in this risky event. According to Daily Mail, Warmbier identified the church as the Friendship United Methodist Church which is located in Wyoming, Ohio.
He almost made it back to the United States. On January 2, he was about to board a plane back to the United States when he was detained by North Korean officials and taken away. North Korea announced in late January that they had arrested Warmbier but no details of the charges or punishment were released.
In February, Warmbier was paraded in front of the media where he broke down and apologized for attempting to steal the banner. During his press conference Warmbier sobbed and begged the forgiveness of the North Korean government and people for committing a hostile act.
“I made the worst mistake of my life,” said Warmbier in his press conference. “I plead for you to forgive me, not for me, but for my family.”
Warmbier was then shuttled away by North Korean guards to begin his sentencing.
In what has been compared to Soviet Gulags and Nazi concentration camps, North Korean hard-labor camps are designed for its prisoners to work until their death or suicide. They are subject to torture and forced starvation to keep them weak and controllable. In an interview with Daily Mail, a former North Korean guard who is known only as Lee, revealed that he witnessed a man get murdered by two soldiers. The prisoner was first questioned and then ordered to leave through a door where a pair of guards were waiting with a rubber cord to strangle him. Lee also recounted a time where he witnessed prisoners digging holes, they were ordered to stand at the edge and then were executed by a hammer. In a 2014 UN report, one political prisoner described being strung over a lit fire during interrogation and having a finger cut off for dropping a sewing machine.
“The camps are surrounded by high perimeter fences that are electrified at a deadly voltage and further secured by barbed wire,” according to an article published by Daily Mail. “Pit traps and minefields are placed around the perimeter fence. Camp guards are under firm orders to shoot to kill anyone trying to escape and they are rewarded if they do so.”
One of the most common causes of death in the camps is starvation.
“Prisoners are given minimal rations of food, which in some cases consist of corn and salt,” according to an article published by Daily Mail. “Prisoners are only able to survive over longer periods of time by hunting and gathering insects, rodents and wild plants or finding ways to divert food meant for the guards and farm animals.”
Warmbier does have hope in the form of being pardoned by the North Korean government and sent home. In the past, visits by U.S. officials such as former President Bill Clinton and U.S. spy chief James Clapper have proved to be successful in negotiating the release of detainees. Clinton helped to release journalists Euna Lee and Laura Lang in 2009 after they crossed North Korea’s border from China illegally. Most recently in 2014, Jeffrey Fowle, another Ohio resident, was released on a U.S. government plane after being detained for six months. Fowle’s charges? Leaving a Bible in a local club.
About the Writer…
Taylor Hodges is a senior majoring in Sport Management/ Business Administration. He interns with the public relations department for the Grand Rapids Griffins. He hopes to one day break into the hockey business as a General Manager, but until then, encourages you to follow him on Twitter and download his mixtape.