An American college student from Cincinnati was arrested in North Korea for alleged anti-state acts, with officials claiming the man meant to “destroy the country’s unity under the direction of the U.S. government.”
Otto Frederick Warmbier, 21, of the University of Virginia, was in North Korea to celebrate the New Year when he was detained at Pyongyang airport on January 2 ahead of a flight back to China.
Warmbier had been traveling with the China-based company Young Pioneer Tours, the agency confirmed in a statement.
“We are in contact with the Swedish Embassy, (who act as the protecting interest for U.S. citizens), who are working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to address the case,” it said.
“We are also assisting the U.S Department of State closely with regards to the situation. In the meantime we would appreciate Otto’s and his family’s privacy being respected and we hope his release can be secured as soon as possible.”
News of Warmbier’s arrest shocked those at home.
“Praying for you buddy see you soon,” one friend wrote on Twitter.
"You guys please pray for my friend Otto Warmbier he is currently being detained in North Korea!! Send your love his way please!" another posted on Facebook.
Omid Mianegaz, 42, told INSIDE EDITION he was floored that this could happen to the boy he remembered as a sociable and positive kid who played club soccer in his hometown of Cincinnati.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God,'” said the former coach at the Ohio Elite Soccer Academy, where Warmbier played through high school.
“It’s just shocking. It really hasn’t even sunk in, the scale of what this is,” he said.
Warmbier’s magnetic personality made him a pleasure to be around, Mianegaz recalled.
“He’s one of those kids who are extra well-liked. Everybody gravitated toward him. You remember him, because he just kind of stood out. I remember thinking, ‘boy, that guy’s going to enjoy college,’ just because of his personality,” he continued.
Warmbier's former teammate, Trey Lonneman, told IE that this couldn't have happened to a nicer person.
"When I heard, I was just shocked and immediately I was just so sad." said Lonneman, 21, who played soccer with Warmbier for more than a decade.
"He comes from a small town within Cincinnati and I'm sure everyone over there is heartbroken," he continued. "There couldn't be a worse person for this situation to happen to. I can't even wrap my head around this right now. It's surreal."
The State Department reportedly said it was aware of media reports about Warmbier’s arrest, but would not comment further.
Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) claimed on Friday that Warmbier was detained after he entered the country “under the guise” of tourism.
The state-run media also alleged the University of Virginia student of carried out “a hostile act against the DRPK,” referring to the acronym for the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea.
The accusations stunned Lonneman, who said: "He's just the nicest, most well-mannered, respectful people in the community.
"If I had to pick one of my friends to be President of the United States, I would honestly, without a doubt, turn to Otto. He's everything you could ask for in a friend, in a teammate. This whole thing is tragic," Lonneman continued. "When I heard what happened, I was absolutely flabbergasted."
Warmbier had spent five days in the country on the “New Year’s Party Tour,” a trip that included fireworks in Kim II Sung Square and time spent “with locals and expats alike,” Young Pioneer Tours’ website said.
Warmbier is working towards his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Virginia, where he’s majoring in economics with a minor in global sustainability, according to his LinkedIn profile.
The profile notes he is an Echols Scholar, having been a part of the top seven percent of incoming first year students at the University, and is a member of the Dean’s List.
He has also studied at the London School of Economics and lists under his current experience a managing directorial role at an alternative investment fund.
Warmbier had previously visited countries including Ireland, Cuba and Israel, according to his Facebook profile.
“Those claims being made about a student like him. To hear those sorts of things being said… it’s just so frightening,” Mianegaz said.
Warmbier is the third western citizen known to be currently detained in North Korea.
A South Korean-born Canadian pastor was arrested in North Korea last year and given a life sentence for subversion.
Earlier this month, a Korean-American man told CNN he was being detained on the suspicion of spying. A man identified as Kim Dong Chul was being held by the Pyongyang government after being accused of spying and stealing state secrets, CNN reported.
Westerners held previously in North Korea have said that any confessions given were made under pressure from the state.
Pyongyang released three detained Americans in 2014.
“The Department of Sate strongly recommends against all travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea,” the Department notes on its website. “Travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea is not routine, and U.S. citizens have been subject to arrest and long-term detention for actions that would not be cause for arrest in the United States or other countries.
“North Korea has even detained several U.S. citizens who were part of organized tours. Do not assume that joining a group tour or using a tour guide will prevent North Korean authorities from detaining you or arresting you. Efforts by private tour operators to prevent or resolve past detentions of U.S. citizens in the DPRK have not succeeded in gaining their release.”