Otto Warmbier’s family was advised to conceal his Jewish identity while negotiators tried to secure his release, it has been reported.
The 22-year-old died this week, soon after North Korea returned him to America on “humanitarian grounds”. Alhough it was widely reported that Mr Warmbier was active at the campus Hillel at the University of Virginia, his Jewish identity had not been confirmed during his 15-month detention in the totalitarian state.
According to a report in the Times of Israel, Mr Warmbier’s relatives were advised to keep his identity under wraps while negotiations were under way.
The reason, according to the news site, was because North Korea alleged he had been ordered to steal a propaganda poster by the Friendship United Methodist Church in Ohio.
However, Mickey Bergman, executive director of The Richardson Centre, which works to negotiate the release of prisoners and hostages, told the site: “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.”
He added: “When you realise he’s Jewish, you realise how ridiculous that claim is.”
The economics student was returned to his home in Cincinatti, Ohio, last week, but he was severely ill and died within days.
Mr Warmbier was arrested just before leaving North Korea, after participating in a student tour in January 2016. He appeared to confess to his ‘crime’ at a staged news conference, where regime officials suggested the church’s involvement.
His trial lasted for one hour and he was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour.
“If that’s what their story is, there’s no point fighting it if your objective is to get him out,” Mr Bergman said.
Mr Warmbier visited Israel, including the Western Wall, on a Birthright trip in 2014. Describing the emotional experience in an online blog, he wrote: “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.
“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.”
Rabbi Jake Rubin, director of the Hillel at the University of Virginia and who accompanied Mr Warmbier on the visit to Israel, was due to officiate at a public memorial for him this morning.