March 23, 2016 by Open Doors in Asia
North Korea has sentenced a 21-year-old US student to 15 years’ hard labor following his “confession” to stealing a piece of political propaganda during his trip at the request of his church in Wyoming, Ohio.
Otto Warmbier, a third-year economics student at the University of Virginia, was arrested on Jan. 2 when he was about to board a flight from North Korea to China. He was accused of trying to steal an item bearing a piece of propaganda from the Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang, where he was staying.
Following his arrest, Warmbier made an emotional confession to the crime at a news conference broadcast on state television. At the conference, Warmbier said a “deaconess” of his Friendship United Methodist Church in Ohio had promised to give him a used car worth USD 10,000 if he brought back a propaganda sign from his North Korea trip. However, the senior pastor at the church said he did not know the person identified by Warmbier as a deaconess there, and said Warmbier was not a member of the congregation.
North Korea’s state news agency, KCNA, said Warmbier has been convicted under an article of the criminal code relating to subversion. The verdict was handed out March 16 by the country’s Supreme Court.
According to KCNA, Warmbier said, “The aim of my task [to steal the trophy] was to harm the motivation and work ethic of the Korean people. This was a very foolish aim.”
On March 15, Bill Richardson, a long-time American diplomat and former governor of New Mexico met with two North Korean officials in New York to urge Warmbier’s release on humanitarian grounds.
North Korea has a history of detaining foreigners and later making a public display of their “confessions,” as in the case of Korean Canadian pastor Hyeun-soo Lim who had made over a hundred humanitarian trips to North Korea, but was sentenced in December to life in prison following an admission in a Pyongyang church of committing crimes against the state. He was convicted of numerous charges including an attempt to overthrow the government and attempting to establish a religious state. Lim’s sentencing by the Supreme Court also followed the failure to win his release through diplomatic channels.
In May 2014, North Korea sentenced South Korean pastor Kim Jong-Wook to a life of hard labor. As a missionary, Kim operated from the Chinese border city of Dandong, where he provided shelter, food and other aid to North Korean refugees who crossed the border seeking relief from the famine in their country. Kim also taught the refugees about the Bible. North Korean agents infiltrated his network and convinced him to visit their country, which he did Oct. 8, 2013. Kim was expecting to find out what had happened to some refugees with whom he had lost contact but instead he was arrested, interrogated and possibly tortured.
In February 2014, Kim told assembled North Korean television cameras he had spied for the South Korean government, had given money to North Koreans to set up 500 underground churches and attempted to overthrow the regime. After a trial in May 2014 North Korea’s state media reported that prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Kim, but the court imposed the life sentence after the pastor had “sincerely repented.”
North Korea links Christianity with South Korea and the United States — both considered to be enemies of the state. Ever since North Korean Christians fled communist oppression and made a run for the South during the Korean War in the early 1950s, they have been seen as traitors. After the war, tens of thousands of Christians were arrested, forced into hard labor or put to death. Christians who stayed live their faith in secret.
Father, today we lift up Otto Warmbier to You in his distress. If he does not know You, we pray that You will use these unimaginably difficult circumstances to turn his heart to You in saving faith. We pray that You will open his eyes to see Christ with him, that he will turn to You in new ways, that You will grant him courage to face each day. As loneliness sets in and as he suffers from beatings, bring to mind the words from Psalm 23, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Wipe away each tear and heal his wounds. We pray for his release, thinking also of the many others who suffer imprisonment there as well. Fill them all with hope in the glory set before them. In the name of Jesus, the Shepherd of our Souls, Amen.