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US Urges North Korea to Pardon US College Student

American student Otto Warmbier (C) is escorted at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang, North Korea, March 16, 2016. Warmbier was sentenced Wednesday to 15 years in prison with hard labor.

The U.S. government is calling on North Korea to pardon an American college student sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for committing crimes against the state.

"There is no greater priority of this administration than welfare of citizens abroad," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday.

He said it is "increasingly clear" that Pyongyang is using U.S. citizens as "pawns to pursue a political agenda," and he called for Otto Warmbier's release.

Warmbier was arrested in North Korea in January as he was trying to leave the country after visiting with a tour group.

During an appearance before a group of foreign and domestic journalists in Pyongyang last month, the 21-year-old student at the University of Virginia admitted to removing a banner with a political slogan from a staff-only area of the hotel where the group was staying.

Warmbier said the mother of a friend offered him a used car worth $10,000 in exchange for the banner, which she wanted to display as a "trophy" in her church. The woman said if he was caught, Warmbier's mother would get $200,000.

WATCH: Related video of American student detained in North Korea

Detained American in North Korea Makes 'Public Confession'
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North Korea has often detained Americans and other foreign citizens on trumped up charges.

The detainees are usually brought before foreign journalists to read statements confessing to crimes committed against the dictatorial regime.

The statements are widely considered to have been coerced, and detainees often recant their confessions after their release.

Just hours before Warmbier was sentenced, former U.S. ambassador Bill Richardson said he met with two North Korean diplomats at the United Nations in New York and appealed for the student's release.

Richardson has gone to North Korea several times in recent years to secure freedom for jailed Americans.

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