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(LEAD) U.S. trying to learn more about UVA student detained in N. Korea: White House

All Headlines 06:34 March 01, 2016

(ATTN: CHANGES slug; UPDATES with State Department briefing in last 2 paras)

WASHINGTON, Feb. 29 (Yonhap) -- The White House said Monday it is trying to learn more about an American college student detained in North Korea, after Pyongyang claimed the student admitted to his "severe" crime of stealing a political sign from a hotel and asked for forgiveness.

Otto Frederick Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, has been detained in the North since Jan. 2 for stealing a political sign that had promoted "the Korean people's love for their system" from the hotel, according to the Korean Central News Agency.

At a news conference on Monday, Warmbier admitted to the charges against him and asked for forgiveness, saying the "aim of my task was to harm the motivation and work ethic of the Korean people. This was a very foolish aim," according to KCNA.

"There's no greater priority for the administration than the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad. And in cases where U.S. citizens are reported detained in North Korea, we work closely with the Swedish embassy, which serves as the United States' protecting power in North Korea," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said at a press briefing.

"Obviously we're working through the Swedes to learn as much as we can about this individual, and about the circumstances of his detention, and we're interested in ensuring the safety and welfare of U.S. citizens around the world," he said.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said he's seen Warmbier's press conference and added that the communist nation uses such detentions as a propaganda tool.

"As a general practice, North Korea arrests and imprisons people for actions that would not give rise to arrests, let alone imprisonment, in the United States, and there's little doubt that North Korea uses detention as a tool for propaganda purposes," he said.

jschang@yna.co.kr
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