North Korea sentenced a U.S. college student to 15 years hard labor for what it called crimes against the country, China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported Wednesday.
Otto Frederick Warmbier, a junior at the University of Virginia, entered North Korea as a tourist in late December and took down a propaganda sign in Pyongyang so he could exchange it for money outside the country, North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency reported in late February. Xinhua didn’t state in its report how it learned of the sentencing.
The imprisonment of Warmbier, if confirmed, would further chill relations with the U.S. as the Obama administration seeks to ratchet up pressure on the regime in Pyongyang over a fourth nuclear test in January and a long-range rocket launch weeks later.
The United Nations Security Council this month passed a resolution tightening sanctions on North Korea, including a ban on exports of certain minerals — a key source of hard currency for the Kim Jong Un regime.
North Korea has used detained and convicted U.S. nationals as a way to draw prominent American figures such as former U.S. President Jimmy Carter into Pyongyang as mediators to open negotiations with Washington.
The U.S.’s efforts to help Warmbier are complicated by having no diplomatic relations with North Korea. Instead, it maintains contact through the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang.