There's been little public word about what has happened to an American college student detained in North Korea, as a new administration takes over one year later amid deep U.S. concerns about the hostile country's nuclear and missile development.
North Korea announced last Jan. 22 it had detained Otto Warmbier, a 21-year-old University of Virginia student from suburban Cincinnati, earlier that month for alleged anti-state crime. Warmbier, who had visited North Korea with a tour group, was sentenced in March to 15 years in prison at hard labor after a televised tearful public confession to trying to steal a propaganda banner.
Such North Korean detentions of U.S. citizens for offenses that might seem minor to outsiders — Warmbier said he wanted to take the banner home for a woman in Ohio who wanted to hang it in her church — are seen in Washington as having political motives, and Warmbier's has come during a time of worsening tensions.
The State Department calls the sentence "unduly harsh," and spokesman John Kirby said in a statement last week in response to an Associated Press query that the department continues to work for Warmbier's "earliest possible release." Noting that he has gone through North Korea's criminal process and been detained more than year, he said: "We continue to urge the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of North Korea) to pardon him and grant him special amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds."
Another U.S. tourist from Ohio, Jeffrey Fowle, was arrested in 2014 for leaving a Bible in a nightclub and was freed after six months.
Already at odds over its nuclear tests and missile launches, North Korea in July called new U.S. sanctions aimed directly at Kim Jong Un and other top leaders for human rights abuses the equivalent of declaring war, and diplomats inquiring about Warmbier and a Korean-American also being held have been told they were being treated under "wartime law." It's not clear what that means, although it could imply tougher treatment. The United States doesn't have diplomatic relations with North Korea.
North Korea has refused repeated Associated Press requests in Pyongyang to speak with Warmbier.
The Warmbier family and people in contact with them have been cautious about commenting on the sensitive situation.
A spokeswoman for Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich said he continues to be "very concerned" about Warmbier and discussed him during a White House visit in late 2016. The spokeswoman, Emmalee Kalmbach, said Kasich has encouraged U.S. authorities to keep the Warmbier family informed.
Warmbier's parents said after his public confession last February that they hadn't been able to communicate with him, and his father, Fred, expressed hope his son's "sincere apology" would persuade North Korea to allow him to come home. The statement was released through the University of Virginia.
Although there has been scant news on Warmbier since his sentencing, his situation could re-emerge as Donald Trump's administration begins dealing with North Korea. He has said he will push China to exert its influence on North Korea to bring it into line, but Trump also said during his presidential campaign that he would be willing to meet with Kim Jong Un.
There's little doubt North Korea would like to use Warmbier to get a U.S. president to travel to "kowtow and ask for him back," said Boston University Professor Emeritus Walter Clemens, whose extensive writings on North Korea include two books. But there's always the hope that such a meeting could open a way to improving current tensions, he said.
"It's obviously very terrible for the family and for Mr. Warmbier," said Clemens, a Cincinnati native. "But he could conceivably be the bridge for establishing a rapprochement between the United States and North Korea."
University spokesman Anthony P. de Bruyn said he wasn't aware of any recent family statements, adding that he's not a spokesman for them.
"The university continues to closely follow the unfortunate situation involving Otto Warmbier and remains in regular contact with the Warmbier family," he said by email.
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, of the Cincinnati area, said: "I continue to stay in close touch with the family as well as the administration, and hope that Otto will be released soon."