North Korea sentenced a U.S. college student to 15 years hard labor for what it called hostile acts against the country, further chilling relations with the U.S. as the Obama administration seeks to ratchet up pressure on the regime over its nuclear arms program.
North Korea’s Supreme Court issued the sentence on Wednesday against Otto Frederick Warmbier, a student at the University of Virginia, the country’s official Korean Central News Agency said. Warmbier 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, KCNA reported in late February.
The sentencing comes as the U.S. is conducting annual military exercises with South Korea, which North Korea has denounced as a dress rehearsal for war. Early this month the United Nations Security Council tightened sanctions on North Korea, imposing a ban on exports of certain minerals -- a key source of hard currency for the Kim Jong Un regime -- over its fourth nuclear test in January and a long-range rocket launch weeks later.
North Korea has 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.
Tension remains high along the border between North Korea and South Korea after the nuclear test. On Tuesday KCNA quoted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as saying his country would soon conduct another test. His threat comes ahead of a global nuclear security summit to be hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington later this month.