Otto Frederick Warmbier was detained on January 2, 2016, in Pyongyang
He is accused of trying to steal a banner bearing a political slogan
North Korea alleges he was encouraged by a secretive university society and the CIA
The parents of Otto Frederick Warmbier, an American college student detained in North Korea, are “greatly relieved’ now that they’ve seen pictures of him for the first time in nearly two months.
“We had not heard from him during these many weeks, so you can imagine how deeply worried we were and what a traumatic experience this has been for us,” Fred and Cindy Warmbier said in a statement released Monday. “He seems to be in good health, although we won’t know for sure about his condition until we have a chance to speak with him.”
Warmbier is accused of trying to steal a North Korean banner, containing a political slogan that was hanging from the walls of his Pyongyang hotel.
A North Korean official with direct knowledge of Warmbier’s case says the 21-year-old held a news conference “at his own request” Monday morning at the People’s Palace of Culture in Pyongyang.
The event provided insight into the bizarre charges he is facing in the secretive Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK, including allegations that he was encouraged to commit the “hostile act” by a purported member of an Ohio church, a secretive university organization and even the CIA.
The U.S. State Department said it was aware of media reports the U.S. citizen was detained in North Korea but declined to comment further “due to privacy considerations.”
New details of alleged ‘hostile act’
In a video supplied to CNN, North Korean guards escorted Warmbier into the room. He was not restrained and was wearing dark trousers, a light-colored blazer, shirt and tie.
Appearing to read from a statement, Warmbier said: “I committed the crime of taking down a political slogan from the staff holding area of the Yanggakdo International Hotel.” It is not known if the student was forced to speak.
“I apologize to each and every one of the millions of the Korean people, and I beg that you see how I was used and manipulated,” he said. “My reward for my crime was so much smaller than the rewards that the Z Society and the Friendship United Methodist Church get from the United States administration.”
Warmbier is also seen in the video sobbing and pleading for forgiveness, and bowing deeply to apologize.
“I never, never should have allowed myself to be lured by the United States administration to commit a crime in this country. I wish that the United States administration never manipulate people like myself in the future to commit crimes against foreign countries. I entirely beg you, the people and government of the DPRK, for your forgiveness. Please! I made the worst mistake of my life!”
Warmbier’s parents have asked the North Korean government to accept his apology and “consider his youth and make an important humanitarian gesture by allowing him to return to his loved ones.”
North Korea’s allegations
North Korea accuses Warmbier of surfing the Internet to study different North Korean political slogans and plotting to steal one by folding it up on a thin rectangular metal sheet, and concealing it in his suitcase.
The official says Warmbier put on “quiet shoes” he brought from the United States, and just before 2 a.m. on January 1, 2016, he entered the staff-only second floor of the hotel intending to steal a sign or banner with a political slogan.
“The slogan was bigger than he had thought. So he couldn’t take it away and turned it upside down and deserted (it) on the floor when he had pulled it from the hangers,” the official said.
Warmbier, a third-year business major at the University of Virginia, originally was detained on January 2 as he was about to board a plane and leave the country, according to Young Pioneer Tours, the China-based travel company that organized his trip.
A North Korean official with direct knowledge of the case tells CNN that Warmbier is accused of meeting last year with a member of the Friendship United Methodist Church in Wyoming, Ohio – a small suburb of Cincinnati.
The church member “emphasized that North Korea is an anti-Christian communist state and that communism should be ended,” said the North Korean official, whom CNN has agreed not to identify.
According to the same official, the church member allegedly encouraged Warmbier “to take an important political slogan from North Korea in order to weaken the ideological unity and motivation of the North Koreans” and promised to give him a “$10,000 used car” if the “mission” was successful.
CNN spoke with the church’s Senior Pastor Meshach Kanyion, who did not know the purported church “deaconess” named by North Korean officials. He said Warmbier is not a member of the church, which has a congregation of around 500 people.
“I’ve never met his family. Clearly there are some people who know him and went to school with him. If his family went to our church, we would’ve been much more involved” in pushing for his release, Kanyion said.
Z Society distances itself
North Korea also alleges that Warmbier met last year with a member of Z Society, a secretive philanthropic organization at UVA that is known to paint its “Z” symbol around university grounds. Warmbier was allegedly told he could gain membership to the selective organization if he carried out his “mission.” North Korea alleges that the Z Society has links to the CIA.
A member of the Z Society at UVA told CNN the organization sought to anonymously recognize students who contributed positively to the university. The source said the group had never had any contact with Warmbier and he’d never been approached to be a member.
The source also dismissed suggestions that the group had any affiliation with the CIA.
“There’s just not even the semblance of a relationship between a group of undergrads who get together to eat hummus and write nice things about people, and the CIA,” the Z Society member said.
When contacted by CNN, a University of Virginia spokesman said: “The university is aware of recent media reports and remains in close contact with Otto Warmbier’s family. We will have no further comment at this time.”
American tourists as political pawns?
Warmbier’s arrest has once again raised questions about the safety of American tourists traveling to North Korea. Some have accused the regime of using detained U.S. citizens as political pawns.
Days after Warmbier’s arrest in January, Pyongyang claimed to test its first H-bomb. The provocative act, followed by a satellite launch weeks later, has resulted in even further isolation of the North. An upcoming U.N. resolution intends to impose heightened sanctions on Pyongyang, which its powerful neighbor and benefactor China has vowed to carry out.
DPRK observers believe the timing of Warmbier’s news conference, with new sanctions on the horizon, may be a deliberate move by the regime.
North Korean travel agencies stress that nearly all Americans who travel to North Korea return home safely. But there have been several incidents of American tourists detained in recent years.
In September 2014, CNN was granted a surprise interview with Matthew Miller and Jeffrey Fowle in Pyongyang after they were detained, along with Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae.
Miller admitted to tearing up his tourist visa upon entering the country, and Fowle admitted to leaving a Bible in a local club while on a tourist trip – a criminal offense in North Korea. Both men, along with Bae, were subsequently released after U.S. intervention, including a visit to Pyongyang by U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
On its website, the U.S. State Department “strongly recommends against all travel to the DPRK,” citing the “risk of arrest and long-term detention due to the DPRK’s inconsistent application of its criminal laws.”
CNN’s Lauren Jackson and Tiffany Ap contributed to this report.