Warmbier is accused 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 press conference “at his own request” on Monday morning at the People’s Palace of Culture in Pyongyang.
The event provided insight into the bizarre charges the 21-year old is facing in the secretive Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), including allegations 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 by the DPRK to speak, or whether he was coerced.
“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,” Warmbier 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!”
North Korea accuses Warmbier of surfing the Internet to study different DPRK political slogans and planning to steal one by fold 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, 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 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, who 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.
North Korea also alleges Warmbier met last year with a member of Z Society, a secretive philanthropic organization at UVA which is known to paint their symbol “Z” 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.
CNN called and emailed a University of Virginia spokesperson on Sunday evening but was unable to reach them after office hours.
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 press conference, with new sanctions on the horizon, may be a deliberate move by the regime.
North Korean travel agencies stress nearly all Americans who travel to the DPRK 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. spy chief James Clapper.
On its website, the US 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.