Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student who has been imprisoned in North Korea since the beginning of 2016, was presented before assembled press in Pyongyang today to deliver what appeared to be a hopelessly coerced confession, in which he admitted he attempted to steal property from a staff lounge at the hotel where he was staying. After, Warmbier broke down in tears and begged for his release back to the United States.
You can watch footage from the press conference above, via the AP. Warmbier confesses that he “committed my crime of taking out the important political slogan from the staff-only area of the Yanggakdo International Hotel, aimed at harming the work ethic and the motivation of the North Korean people.”
North Korea accuses Warmbier of surfing the Internet to study different North Korean political slogans and plotting to steal one by folding it up on a thin rectangular metal sheet, and concealing it in his suitcase.
The official says Warmbier put on “quiet shoes” he brought from the United States, and just before 2 a.m. on January 1, 2016, he entered the staff-only second floor of the hotel intending to steal a sign or banner with a political slogan.
“The slogan was bigger than he had thought. So he couldn’t take it away and turned it upside down and deserted (it) on the floor when he had pulled it from the hangers,” the official said.
Even further context comes from the independent website NK News, which notes that visitors to the Yanggakdo Hotel have long had a curiosity with its staff-only areas, specifically on the so-called mysterious fifth floor:
There has long been curiosity about the staff-only area of the Yanggakdo – located on the hotel’s ‘missing’ fifth floor – among foreign tourists.
With no button for the fifth floor on the hotel’s elevator, visiting foreigners have use fire escapes from the fourth and sixth floor to get access to the area, which is often unlocked.
Blogger Calvin Sun previously posted pictures of the political slogans on display in the area, including anti-U.S. and anti-Japanese imperialism. Posters boasting of the country’s information industry and praising “our general” also appear to be included.
“Our policy on going to the fifth floor is ‘do not go there,’” said Troy Collings, DPRK managing director of Young Pioneer Tours, the tourism company which Warmbier travelled with.
Though it seems plausible that Warmbier did actually attempt to take home a souvenir from the Yanggakdo Hotel, his full confession is plainly absurd and farcical. At the press conference, he alluded to attempting to steal the sign in concert with a church in his Ohio hometown, an alleged UVA secret society and the American government.
“My reward for my crime was so much smaller than the rewards that the Z Society and the Friendship United Methodist Church get from the United States Administration,” Warmbier said.
The North Korean official who spoke to CNN said the country believes Warmbier was going to give the stolen item to his church in exchange for a “$10,000 used car,” and per NK News the reward also included $200,000 from the church for “university tuition” for his siblings.
You can watch further clips from the press conference below via RT America. Warmbier is shown marching into the room with his head down while bracketed by two military officers. Later he openly weeps as he asks to be sent back to his family, and before leaving he pointedly bows to the assembled audience.
In a statement released to CNN, Warmbier’s parents said this was the first time they had seen any images of their son since he was imprisoned several months ago:
“We had not heard from him during these many weeks, so you can imagine how deeply worried we were and what a traumatic experience this has been for us,” Fred and Cindy Warmbier said in a statement released Monday. “He seems to be in good health, although we won’t know for sure about his condition until we have a chance to speak with him.”