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Detained American Student Gives Apparent Confession In North Korean Video

Otto Frederick Warmbier, 21, arrives at the People's Cultural House in Pyongyang, North Korea, where he asked forgiveness in front of the media Monday.
Kim Kwang Hyon
Otto Frederick Warmbier, 21, arrives at the People's Cultural House in Pyongyang, North Korea, where he asked forgiveness in front of the media Monday.

Nearly two months after he was detained in North Korea, University of Virginia student Otto Frederick Warmbier appeared at a news conference aired on state TV and said he attempted to steal a propaganda sign from his Pyongyang hotel.

It's unclear whether Warmbier, 21, spoke of his own volition or whether he was pressured into making the statement. During the broadcast, video of which was first obtained by CNN, he apologized to the people of North Korea and said he had been offered a reward for taking the sign.

Appearing to weep at one point in the video, Warmbier says, "I entirely beg you and the government of the DPR Korea for your forgiveness. Please, I've made the worst mistake of my life, but, please, act to save me. Please. Think of my family."

That was toward the end of the appearance, when Warmbier, standing, bowed deeply in the direction of the media and photographers gathered in the room. Earlier, he said, "I understand the severity of my crime, and I have no idea what sort of penalty I may face."

The event began with Warmbier, wearing a light-colored suit jacket, walking into a room with his head bowed, escorted by two military guards. His hands were not restrained; he carried what appeared to be notes that he referred to during his short speech.

Warmbier said he arrived in North Korea on Dec. 29, 2015, and was arrested Jan. 2 at Pyongyang's international airport.

Citing a "North Korean official with direct knowledge of the case," CNN says that North Korea believes a member of the Friendship United Methodist Church in Wyoming, Ohio, promised Warmbier, who's from Ohio, a used car worth $10,000 in exchange for retrieving a slogan-bearing sign from the communist state.

That official also tells CNN that North Korea believes that Warmbier approached the sign in the middle of the night in an attempt to take it — but that it was larger than he had anticipated, and he was forced to leave it on the floor.

In addition to the church in Ohio, North Korea is accusing Warmbier of acting with two other groups in mind — the CIA and the Z Society, which, according to UVA magazine, is a "semi-secret" group that carries out philanthropic activities and awards academic prizes.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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