TIME North Korea

The U.S. Has Called on North Korea to Release a Detained American Student

Otto Warmbier, 21, has been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor

The White House demanded on Wednesday that North Korea pardon and release Otto Warmbier, the 21-year-old American student who was sentenced Wednesday to 15 years of hard labor for apparently trying to steal a propaganda poster from a Pyongyang hotel earlier this year.

Accusing North Korea’s government of exploiting U.S. citizens as “pawns to pursue a political agenda,” White House spokesperson Josh Earnest said at a press briefing that the U.S. government “strongly encourage[s] the North Korean government to pardon him and grant him special amnesty and immediate release.”

“The allegations for which this individual was arrested and imprisoned would not give rise to arrest or imprisonment in the United States — or in just about any other country in the world,” Earnest said.

The White House’s comments coincided with President Obama’s issuance of a new executive order that redoubled U.S. sanctions against North Korea — a response, Obama wrote, to the authoritarian state’s “continuing pursuit of its nuclear and missile programs.” The President himself did not directly comment on Warmbier’s detention.

North Korea’s highest court asserted that Warmbier had committed a subversive crime “pursuant to the U.S. government’s hostile policy toward [the North], in a bid to impair the unity of its people after entering it as a tourist.” Warmbier, an economics major at the University of Virginia who was visiting North Korea as a tourist, was arrested on Jan. 2 at Pyongyang’s airport as he prepared to board a flight out of the country; authorities maintain he tried to take a piece of propaganda from the hotel where his tour group was staying.

In a staged press conference earlier this month, Warmbier made what appeared to be a scripted apology to “every one of the millions of Korean people.”

American tourists who have been detained in North Korea in the past have later said that the country forced them to “confess” and apologize for their actions. Americans are permitted to travel to the North Korea as tourists, though the U.S. Department of State strongly discourages it.

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