SEOUL (Reuters) - The U.S. student sentenced to 15 years of hard labor by North Korea’s supreme court was convicted for trying to steal a banner invoking former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, state media footage of the trial indicates.
The court sentenced the student, Otto Warmbier, on Wednesday for “crimes against the state”, North Korean media reported.
The United States condemned the punishment as politically motivated and called on North Korea to pardon the University of Virginia student from Wyoming, Ohio, and release him on humanitarian grounds.
The sentencing came as North Korea is increasingly isolated and facing tough new U.N. resolutions following a nuclear test in January and a rocket launch last month. A White House spokesman said it was “increasingly clear” North Korea sought to use U.S. citizens as pawns to pursue a political agenda.
North Korean state media said Warmbier had tried to steal an item bearing a political slogan. A state media picture showed a banner, presented as evidence during his one-hour trial, appearing to bear a slogan extolling the country’s late leader.
Although the name was censored in the photograph, it is likely the slogan read: “Let’s arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong Il patriotism!”
The phrase “Kim Jong Il Patriotism” was used heavily to glorify the late leader after he died in 2011. The slogan has been described by his son and successor, Kim Jong Un, as the “crystallization of socialist patriotism”.
Images and references to North Korea’s leaders, who are treated with almost god-like status in propaganda, are sacrosanct.
Ordinary North Koreans are required to keep and carefully maintain portraits of former leaders Kim Jong Il and his father, Kim Il Sung. A special large, bold typeface is used when their names are printed.
The court showed still CCTV images of Warmbier, 21, entering a staff-only part of the Yanggakdo International Hotel, which towers above the capital, Pyongyang, from an island in the middle of the Taedong River.
Warmbier was at the end of a five-day group tour when he was stopped at the airport and taken away, according to the tour operator that arranged the trip.
In a statement last month, Warmbier confessed to “severe crimes” against the state.
Warmbier entered the restricted area of the hotel in the early hours of Jan. 1, according to a time stamp on a CCTV image used as part of witness testimony to identify Warmbier.
That witness was Warmbier’s North Korean tour guide, identified as Mr Byon, sources who recognized him confirmed to Reuters after studying the footage.
The shirt and boots worn by Warmbier at the time along with his passport, mobile phone and an ID card were also given as evidence in the trial, the footage showed.
“When I got off work, there was nothing amiss,” a second witness, apparently a hotel staff member, told the court.
“But when I returned, I thought someone had deliberately taken the slogan down, so I mobilized security to prevent damage to it and reported it to the authorities.”
The court showed images on a flat screen showing efforts to match fingerprints from the banner with Warmbier’s fingerprints.
Photos of the trial showed Warmbier marking copies of indictment and sentencing documents with red ink on his thumb.
As he was led from the court in handcuffs, Warmbier appeared to turn to Swedish ambassador to North Korea Torkel Stiernlöf, who was present at the trial, and ask him to “keep working” on his case, according to the footage.
The United States does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea and is represented in consular matters there by the Swedish embassy.
North Korea has a long history of detaining foreigners and has used jailed Americans in the past to extract high-profile visits from the United States to secure their release.
Editing by Tony Munroe, Robert Birsel