American college student held by North Korea. What next?

North Korea announced that it is holding American student Otto F. Warmbier after an unidentified 'hostile act' in early January. 

Gary Landers/AP Photo
Exterior of the Warmbier home in Ohio. North Korea on Friday announced the arrest of Otto Warmbier, a university student from Ohio, for what it called a "hostile act" orchestrated by the American government to undermine the authoritarian nation.

North Korea is holding an American student after he committed a “hostile act” at New Years. 

The student, identified as Cincinnatian Otto F. Warmbier, was participating in a five-day tour of North Korea run by a Chinese tour company, Young China Tours. The tour company issued a statement Friday confirming Mr. Warmbier’s detention. 

US State Department spokesman Mark Toner told media that, “We are aware of media reports that a U.S. citizen was detained in North Korea. The welfare of U.S. citizens is one of the Department’s highest priorities. In cases where U.S. citizens are reported detained in North Korea, we work closely with the Swedish Embassy, which serves as the United States’ Protecting Power in North Korea.”

The State Department did not give further details on the matter due to issues of privacy.

Warmbier is a 21-year-old economics major at the University of Virginia. He is also a Theta Chi fraternity member and a member of UVA’s Echol’s Scholars Program. Warmbier was detained as he was leaving the country.

The Korean Central News Agency (North Korea’s official news outlet) wrote that Warmbier was held for suspicions that he had entered the country, “under the guise of 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.”

Despite a standing warning issued by the State Department against US citizens visiting North Korea, Young China Tours maintains that its tours are safe.

The Washington Post quotes a "knowledgable" unidentified source who says that the number of American students that visits North Korea each year likely numbers in the hundreds. Western tourism in the country has grown over the past several years, despite the detention of nine Americans in the last decade.

Although the specific reasons for Warmbier’s detention are unknown, travelers to North Korea are advised to be circumspect and respect the country’s regulation of “unlawful” actions and carrying material that could lead to detention. Possession of religious publications or anti-North Korean propaganda is considered grounds for arrest.

Warmbier’s fellow Ohioan Jeffrey Fowle was arrested and held for six months after leaving a Bible in a North Korean night club. He was returned to the United States in 2014 after efforts by the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang. 

Later in 2014, Americans Matthew Todd Miller and Kenneth Bae were released by North Korea. Mr. Miller had been held for several months, after he, like Warmbier, entered the country on a private tour. He was arrested on suspicion that he was conducting an investigation of North Korean prison camps.

As a missionary, Mr. Bae had been held for two years. He was charged with attempting to overthrow the government.

If Warmbier’s experience is like that of previous detainees, he will likely be held awaiting trial. Often, individuals have been held by North Korea as leverage to force the United States to acknowledge the country by sending prominent officials to secure their release.

Former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter have visited North Korea to retrieve U.S. citizens. Clinton visited in 2009 to bring home journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee. Carter went to North Korea in 2010 to secure the release of Aijalon Gomes, who had been sentenced to seven years in prison.

The US government chooses such emissaries carefully. North Korea desires recognition, so the United States deliberately avoids sending actual diplomats or policymakers.

According to former New Mexico congressman Bill Richardson (D) ,who negotiated the release of a North Korean hostage in 1996, Warmbier’s release will likely follow the pattern of previous hostage releases. 

Mr. Richardson says, “It’s intensive negotiations back and forth, first with a U.N. mission in New York and then when you get there, a lot of meetings, a lot of persuasion. The release happens when the North Koreans believe the hostage is no more use, they’ve milked it.” 

North Korea is currently holding two other Westerners, Kim Dong-chul. who they claim is an American citizen, and Canadian Reverend Lim Hyeon-soo.

Ohio governor and Republican presidential candidate John Kasich has written to President Barack Obama in an effort to secure Warmbier’s release.

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