Otto Warmbier in North Korea
Otto Warmbier in North Korea Reuters

North Korea's Supreme Court sentenced an American tourist to 15 years of hard labor on Wednesday for "subversion." The 21-year-old student had tried to steal a propaganda sign from a hotel he stayed at in January.

Otto Warmbier, an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia, was sentenced in a speedy one-hour trial, reports Associated Press.

The Wyoming, Ohio native confessed to trying to steal the propaganda banner as a trophy for the mother of a friend who wanted to hang it in her church, while visiting North Korea with a New Year's tour group. He was arrested while trying to leave in early January.

Trials for foreigners on similar charges are usually short and punishments are harsh in North Korea, but Warmbier's sentencing is particularly severe, likely given the current high tensions between the despotic regime and the US over Pyongyang's nuclear tests.

Warmbier was accused in late January of committing a crime against North Korea with "the tacit connivance of the US government and under its manipulation."

The young student had been staying at the Yanggakdo International Hotel, and was charged with trying to take the propaganda banner from an area reserved for North Korean staff and forbidden to foreigners.

In a press conference in Pyongyang before the trial, Warmbier tearfully said he tried to take the banner as a trophy for a friend's mother, and said he was offered a used car worth $10,000 if he succeeded. Likewise he was told that if he was arrested, $200,000 would be paid to his mother.

He said he agreed because his family was "suffering from very severe financial difficulties."

In sentencing Warmbier, the court accused him of committing a crime "pursuant to the US government's hostile policy toward (the North), in a bid to impair the unity of its people after entering it as a tourist."

North Korea has regularly accused the US and South Korea of sending in spies to overthrow its dictatorship.

Recently tensions have flared after North Korea held a nuclear test and vowed to conduct more tests, and has also threatened to conduct "indiscriminate" nuclear strikes on the US and South Korea. In response Washington and Seoul are holding massive joint military exercises.