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UVa. student Otto Warmbier sentenced to 15 years hard labor in North Korea

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PYONGYANG, North Korea -- North Korea has sentenced American student Otto Frederick Warmbier to 15 years hard labor for crimes against the state, a North Korean official confirmed to CNN Wednesday.

Warmbier had traveled to Pyongyang on a trip organized by Young Pioneer Tours, a China-based travel company. He was arrested on January 2, 2016, as he was about to board a plane to leave the country.

In an emotional press conference last month, the 21-year-old student at the University of Virginia admitted to attempting to steal a banner with a political slogan from his hotel in the North Korean capital. It is not known whether Warmbier made the admission under duress.

Otto Warmbier

Otto Warmbier

Appearing to read from a statement, he said: "I committed the crime of taking down a political slogan from the staff holding area of the Yanggakdo International Hotel."

"I never, never should have allowed myself to be lured by the United States administration to commit a crime in this country," he said tearfully, as he begged for forgiveness.

"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!"

The North Korean government alleges Warmbier was encouraged to commit the "hostile act" by a purported member of an Ohio church, a secretive university organization and even the CIA.

The tour company he traveled with said on its website it is aware of his sentencing and that it should "be viewed in similar context of previous cases of Americans being sentenced in the DPRK."

Student reaction

University of Virginia students woke up to the headlines Wednesday morning, one of their own was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea.

"It just makes me sad that someone from here would be in that situation," said Jared Dowing, a student at the university.

Human rights experts say it seems the North Koreans want to use the student as a bargaining chip with the U.S. government, during a time of deep nuclear and economic tension.

Otto Warmbier

Otto Warmbier

"It's really just awful timing I guess,” said another student. “Maybe that's the sort of thing North Korea was looking for."

Many students responded with shock and confusion when reading Warmbier would be doing "hard labor."

First year student Jared Dowing said he's heard negative comments about the situation and said some are forgetting Warmbier is a prisoner and a person.

"A lot of it was like why would you go to North Korea? Why would you steal the banner? Obviously, it wasn't a wise decision, but everyone makes a mistake and that doesn't merit 15 years of technically torture."

The State Department is calling for the North Korean government to pardon Warmbier. The University of Virginia told CBS 6 they cannot comment on this case, but they are in contact with Warmbier's family.

Other cases of North Korea detaining Americans

Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller are the most recent American detainees who have been released by North Korea.

Both were accused of perpetrating "hostile acts" against North Korea; Miller spent less than a year in custody after being sentenced to six years hard labor, and Bae, facing a 15-year sentence, was held for nearly two years.

The pair secured their freedom in late 2014.

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson told The New York Times he met with two North Korean diplomats on Tuesday to lobby for Warmbier's release.

Richardson is a veteran diplomat and a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Heightened tensions

Tensions have been particularly fraught on the Korean peninsula in recent weeks. Some North Korea watchers have accused the regime of using detained U.S. citizens as political pawns.

On Tuesday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered tests of a nuclear warhead in the "nearest future," state-run news agency KCNA said. The order came after the U.N. Security Council imposed tough sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear test in January and satellite launch the following month.

Last week, North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles toward the sea.

The aggravation comes during eight weeks of joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea, billed as the largest ever.