North Korea challenges the US yet again

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of the DPRK sentenced an American student to 15 years of hard labor on charges of anti-state activities.

History of the incident

Otto Warmbier, a 21 year-old student at the University of Virginia, visited North Korea on a five-day group tour this New Year’s holiday. In January, he was detained by immigration services at the airport for having attempted to steal a decorative piece with slogans from his hotel. During a press conference held in Pyongyang in February, he confessed that his crime was “very serious and pre-planned.”

US reaction

The US State Department called the verdict "unduly harsh" and White House spokesman Josh Ernest said that it was "increasingly clear" that North Korea seeks to use US citizens as pawns to continue its political agenda. State Department spokesman Mark Toner called on North Korea to pardon the student and immediately release him on humanitarian grounds. The State Department also strongly recommended that US citizens do not make any trips to North Korea.

Arrest as a political tool

North Korea has detained foreigners, including Americans, and imprisoned them before. In 2014, three American citizens were released as a result of negotiations. North Korea condemned a Canadian pastor life imprisonment for subversion along with a Korean-American citizen and three South Korean citizens. Since North Korea has no formal diplomatic relations with the United States, Pyongyang has benefited from visits by high US politicians who are compelled to respond to North Korea's actions.

The geopolitical context

Warmbier’s sentencing took place after the issuance of new sanctions by the UN Security Council against the DPRK. However, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said this week that North Korea will hold another nuclear test along with trial launches of ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. It is most likely that these tests will take place in the near future.