PYONGYANG, North Korea — North Korea presented a detained American student before the media on Monday in Pyongyang, where he tearfully apologized for attempting to steal a political banner — at the behest, he said, of a member of a church back home who wanted it as a “trophy” — from a staff-only section of the hotel where he had been staying.
North Korea announced in late January it had arrested Otto Warmbier, a 21-year-old University of Virginia undergraduate student. It said that after entering the country as a tourist he committed an anti-state crime with “the tacit connivance of the U.S. government and under its manipulation.”
No details of what kind of charges or punishment Warmbier faces were immediately released.
According to Warmbier’s statement Monday, he wanted the banner with a political slogan on it as a trophy for the church member, who was the mother of a friend.
In previous cases, people who have been detained in North Korea and made a public confession often recant those statements after their release.
He was arrested while visiting the country with Young Pioneer Tours, an agency specializing in travel to North Korea, which is strongly discouraged by the U.S. State Department. He had been staying at the Yanggakdo International Hotel, which is located on an island in a river that runs through Pyongyang, the capital.
It is common for sections of tourist hotels to be reserved for North Korean staff and off-limits to foreigners.
In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby said that as a general practice, it was not uncommon for North Korea to detain and imprison people on false or “trumped-up” charges, and use detentions for propaganda purposes.
But Kirby said he could not comment on Warmbier’s case because of privacy considerations, nor on whether Sweden, which handles consular affairs for the U.S. in North Korea, has had access to him.
In his comments, Warmbier said he was offered a used car worth $10,000 by a member of the church. He said the church member told him the slogan would be hung on its wall as a trophy. He also said he was told that if he was detained and didn’t return, $200,000 would be paid to his mother in the form of a charitable donation.
Warmbier identified the church as the Friendship United Methodist Church, which is in his hometown, Wyoming, Ohio.
Meshach Kanyion, pastor of the church, would not confirm whether he knows Warmbier or if he is a church member.
“I don’t have any comment at this time,” he told The Associated Press.
Warmbier’s parents said they had not heard from their son since his arrest and were greatly relieved to finally see a picture of him.
“You can imagine how deeply worried we were and what a traumatic experience this has been for us,” Warmbier’s father, Fred Warmbier, said in a statement provided by the University of Virginia.
“I hope the fact that he has conveyed his sincere apology for anything that he may have done wrong will now make it possible for the (North Korean) authorities to allow him to return home,” he said.
The university said it had no immediate comment other than that it was in close contact with Warmbier’s family.
Warmbier told reporters in Pyongyang that he had also been encouraged in his act by the university’s “Z Society,” which he said he was trying to join. The magazine of the university’s alumni association describes the Z Society as a “semi-secret ring society” that was founded in 1892 and conducts philanthropy, puts on honorary dinners and grants academic awards.
Warmbier said he accepted the offer of money because his family is “suffering from very severe financial difficulties.”
“I started to consider this as my only golden opportunity to earn money,” he said, adding that if he ever mentioned the involvement of the church, “no payments would come.”
North Korea regularly accuses Washington and Seoul of sending spies to overthrow its government to enable the U.S.-backed South Korean government to control the Korean Peninsula.
U.S. tourism to North Korea is legal and virtually all Americans who make the journey return home without incident.
Even so, the State Department has repeatedly warned against travel to the North. Visitors, especially those from America, who break the country’s sometimes murky rules risk detention, arrest and possible jail sentences.
Young Pioneer describes itself on its website as providing “budget tours to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from.”
The agency, based in China, also has tours to Iran, Cuba, Turkmenistan, Iraq and other former Soviet countries.
After Warmbier’s detention, it stressed in a news release that he was the first of the 7,000 people it has taken to North Korea over the past eight years to face arrest.
“Despite what you may hear, North Korea is probably one of the safest places on Earth to visit,” it says on its website.
In the past, North Korea has held out until senior U.S. officials or statesmen came to personally bail out detainees, all the way up to former President Bill Clinton, whose visit in 2009 secured the freedom of American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling. Both had crossed North Korea’s border from China illegally.
It took a visit in November 2014 by U.S. spy chief James Clapper to bring home Matthew Miller, who had ripped up his visa when entering the country, and Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae, who had been incarcerated since November 2012.
Jeffrey Fowle, another U.S. tourist from Ohio detained for six months at about the same time as Miller, was released just before that and sent home on a U.S. government plane.
He left a Bible in a local club hoping a North Korean would find it, which is considered a criminal offense in North Korea.