In January North Korean authorities arrested University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier, who had traveled to North Korea with Young Pioneers Tours — the “first company to offer budget tours to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” In February Warmbier confessed to stealing propaganda from his hotel room (see below). This week Warmbier was sentenced for his crime to 15 years of prison and hard labor.
“Hard labor” sounds like an ancient punishment to modern Western ears. But in much of the world it’s not unusual. In 2013, Foreign Policy examined what it meant to do “hard labor” in North Korea based on the testimony of former captives — it ranged from “slight discomfort to nightmarish torture” says the report. A Korean Bar Association report from 2009 said of North Korean prisoners sentenced to hard labor that most work is “12-15 hour days until they die of malnutrition-related illnesses, usually around age 50.” Warmbier is 21.