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North Korean-U.S. Tensions Play Out In American Student's Arrest

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

An American college student is facing 15 years of hard labor in North Korea. He's accused of trying to steal a sign from a hotel. The U.S. wants to bring him home, but if history is any indication, that will involve sending a high-level delegation to Pyongyang. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier was with a tour group in North Korea when he made what he described in a televised confession as the biggest mistake of his life. He took down a propaganda poster at his hotel to bring home.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest says almost no other country in the world would arrest and charge someone for that. The U.S. calls the sentence unduly harsh and says the 21-year-old should be released on humanitarian grounds.

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JOSH EARNEST: Despite official claims that U.S. citizens arrested in North Korea are not used for political purposes, it is increasingly clear that the North Korean government seeks to use these U.S. citizens as pawns to pursue a political agenda.

KELEMEN: At the State Department, spokesman Mark Toner took the opportunity to remind Americans of the dangers of going to North Korea in the first place.

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MARK TONER: Let me just repeat that again. The United States and the Department of State strongly recommends against all travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea.

KELEMEN: He says Swedish diplomats who represent U.S. interests in North Korea were in the courtroom when the sentence was announced and Warmbier appeared to be in, quote, "reasonably good health."

Former New Mexico governor and veteran diplomat Bill Richardson has been involved in past negotiations to get Americans out of North Korea. And this week, he went to see North Korean diplomats at their office at the United Nations.

BILL RICHARDSON: And I urged the North Koreans to release this young man on humanitarian grounds. Recognizing that the American-North Korean relationship is not in very good shape, I said separate the issues, find ways that we can release this young man. It was a college prank. He's a good, young man. Let him go.

KELEMEN: He says the North Koreans assured him they would send that message to Pyongyang. While North Korea's new leader is unpredictable, Richardson is hoping this case will follow the usual pattern.

RICHARDSON: In the past, they used these American prisoners as bargaining chips. Yes, they ask for high-level envoys, humanitarian assistance. They always want something in return, and this hopefully will be no different.

KELEMEN: This case, though, comes at a particularly tense time. The U.N. Security Council recently imposed its toughest sanctions to date on North Korea to punish for a nuclear test and recent ballistic missile launches. And the White House just followed up with new sanctions of its own. Michele Kelemen NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.