Otto Warmbier’s Jewish Faith Was Kept Secret so Officials Could Negotiate His Release from North Korea

American student Otto Warmbier speaks as Warmbier is presented to reporters Monday, Feb. 29, 2016, in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea announced late last month that it had arrested the 21-year-old University of Virginia undergraduate student. (AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon)
AP/Kim Kwang Hyon

The family of the now deceased University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier kept his Jewish faith a secret so officials could negotiate his release from North Korea, according to an official who negotiated the student’s release.

The official said North Korea justified Warmbier’s imprisonment based on the regime’s claim that the Friendship United Methodist Church in Wyoming, Ohio, ordered him to steal a propaganda poster, and those working for his release did not want to undermine the claim and hurt negotiations, the Times of Israel reported.

“We didn’t want to share it,” said Mickey Bergman, who worked on negotiations for Warmbier’s release, referring to Warmbier’s faith. “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 not affiliated with the Friendship United Methodist Church.

“That’s why that part of the story was kept quiet,” added Bergman, who is executive director of The Richardson Center — an organization that works to negotiate for people who are held prisoner or hostage by hostile regimes.

Warmbier visited North Korea on a student tour around the New Year’s holiday in January 2016 when North Korean officials detained him at Pyongyang International Airport as he was about to leave the country.

He was also detained briefly earlier in his trip when he took the sign down from a wall on a floor restricted to staff only at the Yanggakdo International Hotel where he was staying.

Warmbier appeared at a staged news conference in March 2016 where he gave a statement to the media under coercion confessing to the act and begging the regime for forgiveness.

North Korean officials told CNN at that news conference that they believed the church played a role in the incident.

North Korea ordered Warmbier be sentenced to 15 years of hard labor after a one-hour trial following his public confession to carrying out a “hostile act” against the nation.

“If that’s what their story is, there’s no point fighting it if your objective is to get him out,” Bergman said. “When you realize he’s Jewish, you realize how ridiculous that claim is.”

After Warmbier had been released to the U.S. in a coma with severe brain damage last week, reports emerged that Warmbier traveled to Israel on a Birthright trip in 2014 and was an active member of UVA’s campus Hillel.

Warmbier wrote a blog post for UVA’s Hillel about his Birthright experience, specifically his visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City for the first time.

More than 2,000 people attended Warmbier’s public memorial service Thursday at Wyoming High School in Wyoming, Ohio.

Rabbi Jake Rubin, UVA’s Hillel director who accompanied Warmbier’s group to Israel, reportedly officiated the service.

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