WASHINGTON — The family of Otto Warmbier, the American college student who died on Monday, days after his release from 17 months of captivity in North Korea, was advised to keep his Jewish background and identity concealed while officials tried to negotiate his release.
That was because the North Korean justification for his imprisonment centered on a dubious claim that Warmbier had stolen a propaganda poster in a Pyongyang hotel lobby on orders from the Friendship United Methodist Church in Wyoming, Ohio, to bring it back “as a trophy” in exchange for a used car worth $10,000.
“We didn’t want to share it,” said Mickey Bergman, who worked on negotiations for Warmbier’s release, referring to the fact of Warmbier’s Jewishness. “The family chose, rightfully so, not to share that information while he was in captivity… because they didn’t want to embarrass [North Korea] by explaining that he actually was Jewish” and thus would not have been affiliated with the church.
“That’s why that part of the story was kept quiet,” added Bergman, executive director of The Richardson Center, an organization founded by former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson that works to negotiate the release of prisoners and hostages held by hostile regimes.
Warmbier was visiting the reclusive Asian nation on a New Year’s student tour in January 2016. He was arrested just before departing Pyongyang International Airport. Earlier in his trip, he was briefly detained for taking down a sign on a staff-only floor at the Yanggakdo International Hotel, where he was staying.
Almost two months later, he appeared at a staged news conference, clearly under coercion, where he gave a tearful confession and begged for forgiveness. It was there that North Korean officials told CNN their belief of the church’s role in the incident.
Warmbier was convicted shortly after his public confession on charges of committing a “hostile act” and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. His trial lasted one hour.
“If that’s what their story is, there’s no point fighting it if your objective is to get him out,” Bergman told The Times of Israel. “When you realize he’s Jewish, you realize how ridiculous that claim is.”
After Warmbier’s release last week — in a coma and suffering severe brain damage — reports surfaced that he had gone on a Birthright trip in 2014 and subsequently became active with his campus Hillel at the University of Virginia (UVA).
During his visit to Israel, Warmbier was given a Hebrew name and wrote a blog post about his first time visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City.
“The Western Wall was a truly incredible experience for me,” he said. “Just being at a spot that has been so central to Judaism for thousands of years was completely surreal. The power that emanated from the wall showed on the faces of all those who were near it.
“When I was forced to step away to avoid holding up the group for the third time, it honestly felt like saying goodbye to a loved one,” he went on. “It was difficult to wrap my mind around the concept of such a pinnacle — I had done what so many Jews wish to do. Each year at Channukah, my family finishes the prayer by saying ‘next year in Jerusalem.’ For me, it was this year in Jerusalem. And this day at the Western Wall.”
The Cincinnati native’s mother was Jewish and he identified as such throughout his life, according to a source familiar with the matter.
Bergman, an Israeli-American, said he shared a moment with Cindy Warmbier about her Jewishness. “I kind of knew the mother was Jewish the first time we met,” he said. “I looked at her and she looked at me and she said, ‘Yes, I am.'”
A public memorial for Wambier was scheduled for Thursday at 9 a.m. at Wyoming High School in Wyoming, Ohio, where he had been a student. Rabbi Jake Rubin, the UVA Hillel director who traveled with him to Israel, will officiate at the service.
Afterward, Warmbier will be buried at the non-sectarian Oak Hill Cemetery. The family will receive guests at their home in the following days but will not be sitting shiva, according to a source, who said the family was non-observant.
Warmbier’s death has sparked international outrage, with US President Donald Trump calling it a “total disgrace” and Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) telling reporters he was “murdered by the Kim Jong-un regime” and that the “US cannot and should not tolerate the murder of its citizens by hostile powers.”
Fred Warmbier, Otto’s father, gave a news conference and interview to Fox News’s Tucker Carlson in the days before he died. But since then, the family has, for the most part, kept quiet.
Their only public comment has been to announce their 22-year-old’s death. “It is our sad duty to report that our son, Otto Warmbier, has completed his journey home,” they said.