North Korean foreign minister accused the United States of using a detained American student as a “tactic” to create internal disturbances and make the lives of North Koreans difficult, the Associated Press (AP) reported Saturday. Ri Su Yong defended the jailing of Otto Frederick Warmbier, an undergraduate University of Virginia student arrested in early January for trying to steal a propaganda banner from a staff-only section of a Pyongyang hotel where he was staying.
“He [Warmbier] 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. “I think this young student is regretting a lot what he has been through and what he did.”
Ri, however, said he would let the Pyongyang officials know about the U.S. concern over Warmbier’s fate. The minister also noted that North Korea has released other prisoners serving their full sentences.
“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,” he said.
Last month, North Korea’s Supreme Court sentenced Warmbier to 15 years in prison with hard labor after he confessed and apologized to the crime in February. At a press conference held prior to his sentencing in Pyongyang, 21-year-old Warmbier said he tried to take the banner as a trophy from the Yanggakdo International Hotel for an Ohio church member who promised him a used car worth $10,000. The member had also promised to give Warmbier’s mother some $200,000 in case he was arrested and could not go home. The Wyoming, Ohio, native said he accepted the offer because his family was “suffering from very severe financial difficulties.”
The reclusive Asian state has consistently accused the U.S. and South Korea of sending spies in an attempt to overthrow the Kim Jong Un-led regime so as to help Washington-backed Seoul take control of the Korean Peninsula.