During his 17 months imprisoned in North Korea, the family of American college student Otto Warmbier was advised to keep his Jewish background secret, an Israeli newspaper reported.
Warmbier, age 22, died on June 19, six days after his return to the United States.
U.S. President Donald Trump called North Korea’s treatment of Warmbier a “total disgrace”.
Warmbier’s family said that his Jewish roots were kept secret because North Korea’s justification for arresting him 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.
Warmbier, North Korea charged, was to bring the poster back to Ohio “as a trophy” in exchange for a used car worth $10,000, The Times of Israel reported on June 23.
“We didn’t want to share it,” said Mickey Bergman, who worked on negotiations for Warmbier’s release, referring to 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.
According to the Times of Israel report, Warmbier was visiting North Korea on a New Year’s student tour in January 2016 and 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, Warmbier appeared at a staged news conference where he gave a tearful confession and begged for forgiveness. It was there that North Korean officials told CNN their belief of the Ohio church’s role in the incident.
“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.”
Shortly after his public confession on charges of committing a “hostile act,” Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor after a trial that lasted one hour.
Reports surfaced that Warmbier had gone on a Birthright trip in 2014 and subsequently became active with his campus Hillel at the University of Virginia (UVA), the Times of Israel report said.
During his visit to Israel, Warmbier was given a Hebrew name and wrote a blog post about his experience visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City for the first time.
“The Western Wall was a truly incredible experience for me,” he wrote. “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 Chanukah, 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.”
Warmbier’s mother, Cindy, is Jewish and he identified as such throughout his life, a source familiar with the matter told the Times of Israel.
Bergman 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.’ ”