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Monday 26 September 2016

North Korea puts tearful detained US student before cameras to apologise

Published 29/02/2016 | 15:06

American student Otto Warmbier attends a press conference in Pyongyang, North Korea (AP)
American student Otto Warmbier attends a press conference in Pyongyang, North Korea (AP)

North Korea has presented a detained American student before the media in Pyongyang, where he tearfully apologised for attempting to steal a political banner.

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Otto Warmbier said he tried to take the banner from a staff-only section of the hotel where he had been staying for a member of a church back home who wanted it as a "trophy".

North Korea announced in late January it had arrested the 21-year-old University of Virginia undergraduate student.

It said that after entering the country as a tourist he committed an anti-state crime with "the tacit connivance of the US government and under its manipulation".

No details of what kind of charges or punishment Mr Warmbier faces were immediately released.

According to Mr Warmbier's statement, he wanted the banner with a political slogan on it as a trophy for the church member, who was the mother of a friend.

In previous cases, people who have been detained in North Korea and made a public confession often recant those statements after their release.

He was arrested while visiting the country with Young Pioneer Tours, an agency specialising in travel to North Korea, which is strongly discouraged by the US State Department.

He had been staying at the Yanggakdo International Hotel, which is located on an island in a river that runs through Pyongyang, the capital.

It is common for sections of tourist hotels to be reserved for North Korean staff and off-limits to foreigners.

In his comments, Mr Warmbier said he was offered a used car worth 10,000 US dollars (£7,190) by a member of the church.

He said the church member told him the slogan would be hung on its wall as a trophy.

He also said he was told that if he was detained and did not return, 200,000 dollars (£144,000) would be paid to his mother in the form of a charitable donation.

Mr Warmbier identified the church as the Friendship United Methodist Church, which is in his hometown, Wyoming, Ohio.

Meshach Kanyion, pastor of the church, declined to comment.

Mr Warmbier's parents said they had not heard from their son since his arrest and were greatly relieved to finally see a picture of him.

"You can imagine how deeply worried we were and what a traumatic experience this has been for us," Mr Warmbier's father, Fred Warmbier, said in a statement provided by the University of Virginia.

"I hope the fact that he has conveyed his sincere apology for anything that he may have done wrong will now make it possible for the (North Korean) authorities to allow him to return home," he added.

The university said it had no immediate comment other than that it was in close contact with Mr Warmbier's family.

Mr Warmbier told reporters in Pyongyang that he had also been encouraged in his act by the university's "Z Society," which he said he was trying to join. The magazine of the university's alumni association describes the Z Society as a "semi-secret ring society" that was founded in 1892 and conducts philanthropy, puts on honorary dinners and grants academic awards.

Mr Warmbier said he accepted the offer of money because his family is "suffering from very severe financial difficulties."

"I started to consider this as my only golden opportunity to earn money," he said, adding that if he ever mentioned the involvement of the church, "no payments would come".

North Korea regularly accuses Washington and Seoul of sending spies to overthrow its government to enable the US-backed South Korean government to control the Korean Peninsula.

Press Association

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