(News.com.au MARCH 18, 2016) Fighting through tears and his own quivering voice, 21-year-old American Otto Warmbier never broke character.
“My mother needs me,” Warmbier said, before reaching into his pocket for a tissue. “My father needs me. My younger brother, my younger sister need me. I have made the single worst decision of my life but I’m only human.”
For his efforts and for his confession — Warmbier was filmed stealing a poster on January 1 — he was sentenced to 15 years hard labour.
But maybe, just maybe, they were crocodile tears. One expert says “Warmbier is a clever boy” and “a convenient hostage” who, despite begging to see his family again, actually wants to stay in Pyongyang.
Dr Leonid Petrov, a Korean Studies researcher at the Australian National University, told news.com.au he doesn’t buy Warmbier’s story for a second.
“He’s acting, you can see if you watch the videos,” Dr Petrov said. “One video after another show he’s obviously acting.
“(He) plays his theatrical role exclusively for the North Koreans to make them feel proud and powerful. He is a convenient hostage and will be rewarded for that. Welcome to a new form of A year in Korea: Self-imposed field work.”
Warmbier arrived in Pyongyang on December 29 last year. The University of Virginia student was in the country to see the sights and had organised a tour with a guide.
On January 1, he entered a restricted area of the Yanggakdo International Hotel and removed a poster featuring North Korean propaganda. He thought he had escaped without detection but CCTV cameras captured his every move.
On January 2, he was arrested at Pyongyang airport preparing to leave the country. That’s when the meetings began. That’s when Dr Petrov believed the American hatched a plan to become as valuable to North Korea as possible.
“It looks to me like he is interested in staying there. He presents himself as a victim (but) I think he’s simply trying to get the media attention and get the experience of being detained there,” he said.
“He is trying to get as deep into the situation as possible. Maybe he’s curious, maybe he’s doing field work.”
Warmbier’s speech, delivered a month after his arrest, has been watched around the world. In it, he expresses absolute regret.
“I beg that you find it in your hearts to give me forgiveness and allow me to return home to my family. I also beg that journalists accurately and objectively report my story.”
In a second video, Warmbier confessed to his crimes. He labelled himself a “severe criminal” and explained his motivations.
“I 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 Korean people,” Wambier said.
“After committing my crime against the people and government of the DPR Korea, I was detained. I have been very impressed by the Korean Government’s humanitarian treatment of severe criminals like myself and of their very fair and square legal procedures.
“I understand the severity of my crime and I have no idea what sort of penalty I may face but I am begging to the Korean people and government for my forgiveness and I am praying to the heavens so that I may be returned home to my family.”
Dr Petrov said Warmbier is smarter than people realise. The Theta Chi fraternity brother is on the university’s Dean’s List for outstanding academic achievement.
“He was in North Korea, he obviously knew the place. He went to a restricted area, an area a lot of people don’t know exists. He’s not naive, he’s not a victim.”
He said Warmbier knew “more about North Korea than any of America’s previous detainees” and could be trying to find out as much as he can before he’s kicked out of the country.
“He is a victim in the eyes of Americans,” Dr Petrov told news.com.au.
“He’s trying to portray that he’s not a sympathiser but he also wants as much access to the system as possible. A foreigner who knows too much is a threat to the system so he may not stay there long. They may trade him (for a North Korean prisoner in America) but sooner or later they will release him on some conditions.”
If Warmbier is acting, the White House doesn’t know it or won’t acknowledge it. In a statement, White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Thursday called for the immediate release of the prisoner.
“We strongly encourage the North Korean government to pardon him and grant him special amnesty and immediate release,” Mr Earnest said.
“The allegations for which this individual was arrested and imprisoned would not give rise to arrest or imprisonment in the United States or in just about any other country in the world.”
Warmbier is not the first American to be held in North Korea but his sentence is on the extreme end of the scale. Previously, American missionaries and journalists spent time in detention under the watch of the Kim family.
An Australian even made the list for leaving a bible in a temple. John Short left the religious material in a Buddhist temple in Pyongyang.
The 75-year-old was sent to prison but released after 15 days.