A US student in North Korea has been sentenced to 15 years' hard labour, Chinese news agency Xinhua said Wednesday, after reportedly trying to steal a propaganda slogan poster from his Pyongyang hotel.

Otto Frederick Warmbier, a student at the University of Virginia, was arrested in January 2 "while perpetrating a hostile act against the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea]," Pyongyang's state-run KCNA news agency reported later that month.

Warmbier was presented to a press conference on February 29, where he confessed to the crime of stealing the slogan in an act "aimed at hurting the work ethic and the motivation of the [North] Korean people."

"I have been very impressed by the Korean government's humanitarian treatment of severe criminals like myself," he is heard saying in the video broadcast.

The 21-year-old told North Korean media that a church in the United States had asked him to steal the sign, which was then to be put on display as a kind of trophy. He said the church had promised him a used car worth 10,000 dollars in return for the item.

The institution also reportedly said it would give Warmbier's mother 200,000 dollars in the event that he did not return.

North Korea has arrested a number of foreign nationals for "hostile acts" in recent years, including individuals from the US and South Korea.

In late 2014, the country prematurely released US missionary Kenneth Bae just one year into his 15-year sentence, along with another alleged US spy, after James Clapper, US director of national intelligence, flew to Pyongyang to personally campaign for their freedom.

The sentencing comes amid increased tensions on the peninsula, after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un Tuesday vowed to conduct a nuclear warhead test and ballistic missile launches soon.

Pyongyang said on March 9 it has succeeded in making nuclear warheads small enough to be carried by its ballistic missiles, although some observers have doubted this.

North Korea has complained about the ongoing South Korean and US joint military manouevres, which it says are a rehearsal for invasion.

The United Nations Security Council this month imposed its strictest sanctions ever on North Korea, in response to the tests of a nuclear device in January and a long-range rocket in February.

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