By Leah Cerilli
A 21-year-old University of Virginia student was arrested and detained in North Korea for allegedly taking part in “anti-state activity and hostile acts” against the state, according to the Washington Post.
Otto Frederick Warmbier was detained at Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport upon conclusion of a New Year’s trip to the hermit kingdom, organized by Young Pioneer Tours. The Korean Central News Agency said Warmbier was being questioned for anti-state activity, adding that he “was arrested while perpetrating a hostile act against the DPRK under the guise of being a tourist for the purpose of bringing down the foundation of its single-minded unity at the tacit connivance of the U.S. government and under its manipulation.”
Warmbier was stopped and taken in for questioning by airport officials, who later revealed that he had been hospitalized, according to the Washington Post. The remainder of the tour group was forced to leave without him and remain silent about his detention until the state-owned KCNA news outlet announced his arrest to the world.
According to Reuters, the incident took place at the Yanggakdo International Hotel, where the tour guests were staying. Since then, North Korea has remained quiet about the situation, offering no further information on Warmbier’s arrest or hospitalization. The US State Department said that they are aware of the reports of a U.S. citizen in North Korea, but cited privacy concerns regarding giving away further details.
As pointed out by the Huffington Post, the vague charges issued by North Korea echo those of other Westerners detained in the past.
Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim was detained during a humanitarian trip to a nursing home, nursery, and orphanage. Accused of using religion to destroy the North Korean system, harming the dignity of the supreme leadership, and disseminating negative propaganda, he was convicted of “crimes against the state” and is currently serving a lifetime prison sentence with hard labor.
U.S. citizen Matthew Miller was accused of destroying his visa while in North Korea as a ploy to investigate the country’s human rights situation, and sentenced to six years of hard labor. Similarly, American missionary Kenneth Bae was detained while leading a tour group and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for “anti-state acts.” Miller and Bae never fully served their sentences as the U.S. government negotiated their release in November 2014.
Warmbier’s mysterious arrest has rekindled debates about Westerners traveling to North Korea. In a travel alert, the U.S. State Department has warned about seemingly inoffensive actions resulting in arrest and long-term detention, strongly advising U.S. citizens not to go.
Despite these warnings, thousands of Westerners opt to take the risk and visit the hermit kingdom every year. Young Pioneer Tours alone has provided tours to about 1,000 people a year, of which 40 percent are Americans, according to the Chronicle Telegram.