Otto Warmbier, the 21-year-old University of Virginia college student sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for stealing a North Korean propaganda poster from his hotel may have done it to try and impress a secret society at UVA.
Before his harsh sentencing for the crime of petty theft committed in the Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang, Warmbier, who is also a member of the Theta Chi fraternity, was made to confess his crimes before a panel.
His bizarre confession appears almost theatrical — either to play the part of a cooperative puppet prisoner before North Korean officials, because he was under severe duress, or both.
In it he included a rather odd explanation for his motives in stealing the propaganda banner in the first place — to impress the Z Society, a secret philanthropic society at UVA that has close ties to the CIA (according to Warmbier’s confession).
Here’s how Warmbier explained the motive of his “severe” crime to DPRK officials:
“I will now discuss the Z Society, and its encouragement of my crime.
The Z Society is the most secret organization at the UVA. All members and activities are strictly confidential. I first came to know of the Z Society in September 2013, when I first started at the university. I saw large Z crests painted on all the buildings of the compound. You can see them if you visit the University of Virginia… I was told that they’re from the Z Society, since the society donates millions of dollars to the university. The Z Society has around ten student members currently and after graduation they all go on to become very wealthy, with jobs in politics, business, and religion. Members of the Z Society include former US president Woodrow Wilson and a former head of the CIA. The stated objective of the Z Society is to spread freedom and eliminate tyranny. In order to become members, they must have good grades, and leadership, and most importantly, they must commit a brave act to help with the society’s stated objective. Once again, all members and activities are strictly confidential. It is, well, clear that the Z Society knew of my good grades and leadership. It is also clear that they knew that I would eagerly want to join the society in order to solve my family’s desperate financial problems. Because of this the Z Society expected me to commit a brave act to help eliminate tyranny. In order to prove my braveness to the Z Society I committed my crime in the DPR Korea with hopes of joining the Z Society. As you know from the Cold War era example, the CIA has always been leading anti-communism in every place in the world. There is no doubt that the CIA knows of the Z Society’s encouragement of my crime. Lastly, I want to clearly state that I was the political victim of the United States’ consistent hostile policy against the DPR Korea.”
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The Z Society describes itself as a philanthropic organization that was founded in 1892 at the University of Virginia which is comprised of outstanding and exemplary student leaders who uphold the ideals of the university while remaining anonymous.
However, a Z Society member distanced the organization from Warmbier, telling CNN:
“There’s just not even the semblance of a relationship between a group of undergrads who get together to eat hummus and write nice things about people, and the CIA.”
Of course, this revelation leaves more questions than answers such as how much an isolated totalitarian state actually knows about a secretive and philanthropic college organization or whether Warmbier used details of the Z Society in a confession given under duress.
There is however, another theory — Dr Leonid Petrov, a Korean Studies researcher at the Australian National University, believes Warmbier’s performance is all an act. Petrov told news.com.au:
“He’s acting, you can see if you watch the videos. One video after another show he’s obviously acting.
“(He) plays his theatrical role exclusively for the North Koreans to make them feel proud and powerful. He is a convenient hostage and will be rewarded for that. Welcome to a new form of A year in Korea: Self-imposed field work.
“He was in North Korea (twice before), he obviously knew the place. He went to a restricted area, an area a lot of people don’t know exists. He’s not naive, he’s not a victim. He is a victim in the eyes of Americans.
“He’s trying to portray that he’s not a sympathiser but he also wants as much access to the system as possible. A foreigner who knows too much is a threat to the system so he may not stay there long. They may trade him (for a North Korean prisoner in America) but sooner or later they will release him on some conditions.”
For whatever reason Warmbier took the poster and why he gave the bizarre performance for his confession, we won’t find out until he comes back — if he ever does.