NEW YORK (AP) — North Korea’s foreign minister defended the jailing of an American university student for alleged anti-state activities but told the AP on Saturday that he would inform authorities in Pyongyang there is concern in the U.S. over the student’s fate and noted that other detainees have been released before serving their full sentences.
North Korea’s highest court sentenced Otto Warmbier, a 21-year-old University of Virginia undergraduate, to 15 years in prison at hard labor after he confessed he had tried to steal a propaganda banner as a trophy for an acquaintance who wanted to hang it in her church.
Warmbier, of Wyoming, Ohio, had also been charged with trying to gather information that could be used against the North Korean leadership.
The U.S. government condemned the sentence and accused North Korea of using such American detainees as political pawns.
Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong countered that the student was being used by Washington “as a tactic to make our lives difficult” by creating internal disturbances.
“He was not only collecting very simple information in our country during his visit, but he was a part of this information collection process that would lead to an operation targeting our leadership,” Ri told the AP in an interview. “I think this young student is regretting a lot what he has been through and what he did.”
Ri noted that the North Korean government has allowed previous detainees to leave the country, often after senior U.S. statesmen have come to get them.
“I will let the corresponding authorities know when I go back to Pyongyang that you are, also the American people, very much interested in how he is doing currently. What can be done as the next steps, it’s beyond my jurisdiction,” Ri said.