News / Asia

    American Student Detained in N. Korea for 'Hostile Act'

    Otto Warmbier's profile photo on his Twitter page, @ottowarmbier1.
    Otto Warmbier's profile photo on his Twitter page, @ottowarmbier1.

    An American student arrested in North Korea is the latest in a string of U.S. citizens analysts say the reclusive state has detained in recent years to use as geo-political bargaining chips.

    Otto Frederick Warmbier, 21,  of Cincinnati, Ohio, a student majoring in economics at the University of Virginia, “was caught committing a hostile act against the state,” the official North Korean news agency, KCNA, reported on Friday.

    Warmbier’s actions were “tolerated and manipulated by the U.S. government,” according to the dispatch.

    “We can only speculate why he has been detained. But it is quite risky to visit (North Korea) as a tourist given the sensitivities regarding anything about the state, the leadership, government and political system, or geo-politics in general,” Daniel Pinkston, a professor at Troy University in Seoul, told VOA.

    Arrested January 2

    Warmbier was a member of group trip organized by China-based Young Pioneer Tours and was detained Jan. 2, four days before North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test in defiance of United Nations’ sanctions.

    The underground nuclear blast prompted strong criticism of Pyongyang from neighboring countries, as well as the United States, and the threat of additional tough sanctions.

    State Department spokesman John Kirby says officials are aware of the media reports and that "the welfare of U.S. citizens is one of the department's highest priorities."

    "In cases where U.S. citizens are reported detained in North Korea, we work closely with the Swedish Embassy, which serves as the United States' Protecting Power in North Korea."  Kirby said the State Department had no further information to share due to privacy considerations.  

    North Korea strictly regulates tourism and nearly all visitors arrange their travels through officially recognized foreign tour agencies.

    The United States and North Korea have no diplomatic relations. The U.S. State Department has for years issued strong recommendations in travel warnings against visiting North Korea (officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), due to “the risk of arrest and long-term detention due to the DPRK’s inconsistent application of its criminal laws.”

    Private tour operators have been unable to prevent or resolve past detentions of U.S. citizens there and “have not succeeded in gaining their release,” according to the State Department’s current travel warning on North Korea.

    The KCNA report, without elaboration, said Warmbier entered North Korea with an “aim to destroy the country’s unity.”

    Many of the North Americans arrested by North Korea in recent years have had links to Christian evangelical groups.

    North Korea is an atheist state and for more than a decade has been considered the world’s most dangerous country for Christians, according to the non-governmental Open Doors organization, which categorizes the source of persecution as “dictatorial paranoia."

    No religious connections

    Warmbier’s social media accounts show no religious connections.

    “Anyone who is detained by the DPRK authorities should not expect the type of investigation and judicial review they would experience in a democracy,” said Pinkston.

    Americans detained in North Korea are frequently put on trial and quickly convicted after show trials. They are often released only after famous American politicians, such as former U.S. presidents, or other prominent figures have flown to Pyongyang.

    U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper went to the North Korean capital in November, 2014 for the release of an American who had ripped up his visa on arriving there six months previously.

    A Defense Department plane the previous month also had been sent to North Korea to pick up an Ohio road maintenance worker arrested in May, 2014 for leaving behind a Bible during a group tour.

    Other foreigners known to be currently held by the North include a Canadian Christian minister arrested last year and serving a life sentence with hard labor for alleged anti-state activities, and an ethnic Korean man interviewed by CNN this month and described as a U.S. citizen.

    Approximately 200,000 North Koreans are believed to be imprisoned for their political views or religious beliefs, according to human rights groups.

    Steve Herman

    Steve Herman is VOA's Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, based at the State Department.

    You May Like

    Video Democrats Clinton, Kaine Offer 'Very Different Vision' Than Trump

    In a jab at Trump, Clinton says her team wants to 'build bridges, not walls'; Obama Hails Kaine's record; Trump calls Kaine a 'job-killer'

    Turkey Wants Pakistan to Close Down institutions, Businesses Linked to Gulen

    Thousands of Pakistani students are enrolled in Gulen's commercial network of around two dozen institutions operating in Pakistan for over two decades

    AU Passport A Work in Progress

    Who will get the passport and what the benefits are still need to be worked out

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    by: Joseph
    January 23, 2016 10:06 PM
    He obviously did SOMETHING wrong.

    by: Anonymous
    January 22, 2016 2:57 PM
    If these idiots continue to go into North Korea knowing full well the risks associated in being within a totalitarian state, I have no sympathy for anything which befalls them. All US Embassies and Consulates worldwide have been explaining to all American citizens who express a desire to travel to North Korea are obligated by law to inform those citizens of the high probability they will be craftily scrutinized by the North Korean state security apparatus, and that everything they do or say when interacting with North Korean citizens will be monitored. Not only can they get themselves however unwittingly into difficulties but they also pose a very high risk for any North Korean. There are North Koreans who will attempt to provoke situations in order to curry favor from their own government by relating negative experiences and exchanges they've had with foreigners. The risk factor for an American citizen is exceptionally high. The US government has stated that any American citizen travelling to North Korea for whatever purpose needs to carefully weigh their need to be there. So, if you go to North Korea despite the State Dept. warnings, be it upon your own head. There is little anyone can do to help you should you be detained or arrested there.
    In Response

    by: G.F. Brinton from: Fredericksburg, Va.
    January 23, 2016 9:54 AM
    If we had a President with any guts, he would get on TV and say, If you go to NK or Iran and get pick up, which you will, we will not negotiate for your return. Learn to "vote" for Kim and enjoy your NK citizenship. We are not going to be held hostage by some starry eyed fanatics who need to get a job. I wonder what this will cost us. Give them John Kerry!

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movementi
    July 22, 2016 11:49 AM
    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.

    Video Wall Already Runs Along Parts of US-Mexico Border

    The Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, gained the support of many voters by saying he would build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants and drugs from coming across the border from Mexico. Critics have called his idea impractical and offensive to Mexico, while supporters say such a bold approach is needed to control the border. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from the border town of Nogales, Arizona.

    Video New HIV Tests Emphasize Rapid Results

    As the global fight against AIDS intensifies, activists have placed increasing importance on getting people to know their HIV status. Some companies are developing new HIV testing methods designed to be quick, easy and accurate. Thuso Khumalo looks at the latest methods, presented at the International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa.

    Video African Youth with HIV Urge More Support

    HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is the top killer of teens in sub-Saharan Africa. But many youths say their experience with the virus is unique and needs to be addressed differently than the adult epidemic. VOA South African Correspondent Anita Powell reports.

    Video Poor Residents in Cleveland Not Feeling High Hopes of Republican Convention

    With the Republican Party's National Convention underway in Cleveland, Ohio, delegates and visitors are gathered in the host city's downtown - waiting to hear from the party's presidential candidate, Donald Trump. But a few kilometers from the convention's venue, Cleveland's poorest residents are not convinced Trump or his policies will make a difference in their lives. VOA's Ramon Taylor spoke with some of these residents as well as some of the Republican delegates and filed this report.

    Video Pop-Up Art Comes to Your Living Room, Backyard and Elsewhere

    Around the world, independent artists and musicians wrestle with a common problem: where to exhibit or perform? Traditional spaces such as museums and galleries are reserved for bigger names, and renting a space is not feasible for many. Enter ArtsUp, which connects artists with venue owners. Whether it’s a living room, restaurant, office or even a boat, pop-up events are bringing music and art to unexpected places. Tina Trinh has more.

    Video With Yosemite as Backdrop, Obama Praises National Parks

    Last month, President Barack Obama and his family visited some of the most beautiful national parks in the U.S. Using the majestic backdrop of a towering waterfall in California's Yosemite National Park, Obama praised the national park system which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. He talked about the importance of America’s “national treasures” and the need to protect them from climate change and other threats. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.

    Video Counter-Islamic State Coalition Plots Next Steps

    As momentum shifts against Islamic State in Iraq, discussions are taking place about the next steps for driving the terrorist group from its final strongholds. Secretary of State John Kerry is hosting a counter-IS meeting at the State Department, a day after defense ministers from more than 30 countries reviewed and agreed upon a course of action. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb reports.

    Video Russia's Participation at Brazil Olympic Games Still In Question

    The International Olympic Committee has delayed a decision on whether to ban all Russian teams from competing in next month's Olympic Games in Brazil over allegations of an elaborate doping scheme. The World Anti-Doping Agency recently released an independent report alleging widespread doping by Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. So far, only Russian track and field athletes have been barred from the Summer Games in Brazil. VOA's Zlatica Hoke has more.

    Video Scotland’s Booming Whisky Industry Fears Brexit Hangover

    After Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Scotland’s government wants to break away from the United Kingdom – fearing the nation’s exports are at risk. Among the biggest of these is whisky. Henry Ridgwell reports on a time of turmoil for those involved in the ancient art of distilling Scotland’s most famous product.

    Video Millennials Could Determine Who Wins Race to White House

    With only four months to go until Americans elect a new president, one group of voters is getting a lot more attention these days: those ages 18 to 35, a generation known as millennials. It’s a demographic that some analysts say could have the power to decide the 2016 election. But a lot depends on whether they actually turn out to vote. VOA’s Alexa Lamanna reports.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora