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Meet one of the negotiators who helped free Otto Warmbier from North Korea

Mickey Bergman works for the Richardson Center. They fight to bring Americans back from hostile states.

Mickey Bergman, second from right, at the negotiating table with Governor Bill Richardson
courtesy

Before his return to America in early June, Otto Warmbier spent 17 months held hostage in North Korea. And for nearly all of that time, Mickey Bergman was working on his release. Warmbier came back to America in a coma, and died just days later. He was the first American detainee to die from injuries sustained in a North Korean prison.

Bergman surely hopes he is the last.

Bergman, a 41-year-old former paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces, is the vice president of the Richardson Center, an NGO created by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson that works to free Americans held by criminal organizations and hostile regimes around the world.

He sat down with me and spoke at length about the work of freeing hostages from totalitarian states, how negotiators like him work in concert with, but outside, the US government, and when tiny gestures from key players can make the difference between freedom and imprisonment.

“Engagement is always critical,” he told me. “It's always good. It's always positive. Talk. Directly. Go meet. Go see. You build that trust, you understand people, and you can actually identify what are the real ways of solving a problem.”

What follows is a partial transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length.

Sarah Wildman

How do you know you're actually getting to speak to someone who's speaking for Kim Jong Un?

Mickey Bergman

In this line of business, you have to accept a lot of unknowns from a lot of directions, and just live with it. Even when you work on behalf of a family in the case of a political prisoner, if you become too arrogant and think you are “the” channel, you're setting yourself up for surprises.

Having said that, in North Korea our main channel is through the foreign ministry. When you go into Pyongyang, it's only at the invitation of the leadership. You never just jump on a plane.

Sarah Wildman

Does the family engage you first, or does the United States government engage you first?

Mickey Bergman

We're a nongovernmental organization. Our mandate comes exclusively from the families. Without a family request for help, we can't engage; otherwise we're freelancing and we don't have a mandate. The families do give us the mandate.

Having said that, we immediately engage with governments, not in order to say, "Hey, we're taking on this role kind of despite you"; we're saying, "The family asked us for help, we're going to try and help. If we collaborate, if we share information, it can be useful."

We would never go to North Korea without notifying the White House.

Sarah Wildman

That makes sense.

Mickey Bergman

In many cases, the last mile is conducted by government to government.

Sarah Wildman

At what point did the Warmbier family contact you?

Mickey Bergman

Before the trial. Really quickly after he was taken, they reached out to Gov. Richardson. Reaching the point when a detainee goes to trial is a positive. It feels very counterintuitive, because the trial is typically a big show, and there is a terrible verdict or punishment that comes out of it. But it's actually a positive: Until there is a conclusion of a trial, even the head of the state can't do much.

Sarah Wildman

I understand you withheld information, especially around his Jewish identity. [Warmbier identified as Jewish.] How do you make decisions like that?

Mickey Bergman

From our perspective, since we're not government, our role is very simple. We share the same objective as the parents do. We want to get their loved ones home, and that's what we focus on.

Our ability to communicate and to work and walk and talk through with the family is actually a big chunk of what we do. It's not part of the negotiations for the release, but I believe it's really important for the families that they have somebody they can talk to, they can hear honestly, even though we don't always have all the information.

In the case of Otto, it was the parents' initiative not to share that information. We believed it was the right decision.

Sarah Wildman

Why?

Mickey Bergman

The North Koreans at that point basically used the public story that a church in Ohio had sent Otto to destabilize the regime by taking a political [poster]. Calling their bluff publicly would not advance his release. Our objective is to get him home, not to score points publicly.

Sarah Wildman

Do the North Koreans have an ask on their side? We know yours.

Mickey Bergman

It's interesting; you're getting into the right questions in this. The work we do is in three parts. First is working with the family. The second part is being able to reach out to the captors, to the people who are responsible. For that we need to use political capital and personal relations. Sometimes we need to build new ones, which is the hardest thing in the time of a crisis.

It’s extremely rare that the government or the captors will come to you with what they are honestly looking for. Being able to communicate patiently and build that trust — to actually have them be able to articulate what it is they're looking for — is one of the biggest challenges.

Sometimes, just like in the case of North Korea, we have trial and error. We try to come up with things, we don't come to a meeting with a list for [them], but [we] actually start suggesting things, and [we] see responses. You send a message and you wait for a few weeks until something comes back, and try to understand what it is that actually is the most important thing for them to do.

Working outside of government has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that you're not constrained by the choreography of diplomacy. You can actually talk honestly with somebody. You can be flexible, you can be creative. We are excluded, by definition, from influencing policy, so they know we can't deliver that.

Sarah Wildman

Can you give me an example of where a State Department person, for example, would be more constrained than you are?

Mickey Bergman

I'll give an example of a different North Korea case — Kenneth Bae and two others who were there five years ago. Through conversations, we realized there was a humanitarian crisis in North Korea around children with disabilities, basically: Artificial limbs and wheelchairs did not exist. It was something that was important to [the North Koreans].

Gov. Richardson grabbed me after one of the meetings, and said, "Mickey, we're going to help them with their wheelchairs." He says, "I will raise the money for this, but find us a Christian charity organization that we will work with; we will send them over there so they can do the assessment and deliver the chairs."

Two of the three Americans that were held at the time in North Korea were held [because of charges] related to Christianity. Jeffrey Fowle had left his Bible [behind in a club].

We went to OFAC [Office of Foreign Assets Control] [because] you have to be under the constraints of the sanctions — then we worked with a Christian organization to help [bring the chairs].

Sarah Wildman

Which organization?

Mickey Bergman

Joni and Friends. They went over there on an assessment trip with a representative from our center, and then delivered 200-plus chairs.

Then we would sit with our [North Korean] contacts and say, "We're happy those children in need will get the assistance, but you know, people are asking, how is it that you're very comfortable getting those contributions from a Christian-based organization, and yet you're holding these people with these accusations?"

Two weeks later, Jeffrey Fowle was on his way back home. This was under the Obama administration.

After Fowler went back, we also got an indication from the White House saying, "Hey, now we need you to stop, because we're having an effort to bring Kenneth Bae back home." We respected that, obviously.

Sarah Wildman

In April, the Trump administration had a high-profile release in Egypt of human rights worker Aya Hijazi, which happened, it seems, because of a new warmth between the two leaders. The Trump administration is saying now they've had another success. Did Obama fall down on the Otto Warmbier case?

Mickey Bergman

It's not as simple as that. I think [Otto’s father] Fred Warmbier's words were strong when he was asked about this. He said, "The results speak for themselves," because from his perspective, this happened under Obama’s watch and it was resolved under Trump. I absolutely understand why the family feels that way.

Working on it, I know that we were actually helped by the Obama administration in our efforts, on behalf of Warmbier, both from the president and from [former United Nations Ambassador] Susan Rice at the White House. It was not sufficient. Obviously, we were not able to resolve it at that time.

But I can also say that we started reaching out to the Trump transition team immediately after the election, because there was a moment there between the election and his inauguration that was a moment of opportunity in which he was not a president yet. We can't know for sure, but I believe we could've pulled a release of Otto earlier.

Sarah Wildman

Why? What made you think that?

Mickey Bergman

We believe the North Koreans needed something symbolic from the US government. Something that they [could] use and say, “Okay, we've been recognized.”

If you look back at the history, there's the case of the USS Pueblo [in 1968]. It was a ship captured by the North Koreans with 70 or 80 sailors on it. They were held captive until a letter was sent from the White House to North Korean leadership. There's so much importance in those kinds of acknowledgements.

In my last visit there, they actually took me to the ship, because it's in a museum now.

The point for us was: Look, if we can have some indication, some simple indication from the president-elect, that he would see Otto's release as a humanitarian gesture of goodwill, we had a good reason to believe that would have accelerated [his release].

We tried to get in touch with [the Trump transition team] for a long, long time.

Sarah Wildman

Why do you think it didn't happen?

Mickey Bergman

I do not know. We tried several channels. In my calculation, I thought it would've been a good thing for him, because it's a tangible thing to show, to say, "Hey, I'm not in office yet, and I'm able to move those kind of deals."

That flexibility became more complicated once he became president, because now you have to go through the whole bureaucracy they had to set up.

I do have to give [Trump] credit that once they saw an opportunity, based on the intelligence they got on all those conditions, they took it. If you combine that with the case in Egypt that he personally pursued, it does show reasons to believe that Trump actually can take those cases very seriously.

The challenge is how do we build this into a better strategy? A big part of that strategy should be relationships. [Take] Dennis Rodman in North Korea. People like to dismiss him, and I think he has many challenges in his approach, but he's the only American who has ever met Kim Jong Un. It's because of Kim Jong Un's love of the Chicago Bulls, but that is leverage.

Sarah Wildman

That's interesting.

Mickey Bergman

Gov. Richardson has been doing it for years, and is so good at this for reasons of his own character, instinct, and gut reactions. Jesse Jackson has ties, Jimmy Carter has ties, businesspeople have ties.

My point is that those assets, [those] personal relationships are assets, [that] exist outside of the US government, not only inside.

We're working on a case now in Venezuela, a guy named Josh Holt. He's 25 years old; actually this Friday will be the one-year anniversary of his imprisonment there.

Sarah Wildman

Why was he imprisoned?

Mickey Bergman

False accusations about, basically, being Jason Bourne. He's a young Mormon kid from Utah; there are eyewitnesses [who say] that evidence was planted in his hotel. He married a young Mormon Venezuelan woman and was there to be with her. Right now we need to figure out: Who has the relationships in Venezuela?

If we learned at all from the Warmbier case, our old thinking of, “We have time, it will take a year, it will take two years, but we'll get the person back,” does not carry water anymore.

[For] Otto Warmbier, time basically killed him.

Sarah Wildman

When did you learn that his health was in a dire situation?

Mickey Bergman

The first I learned about [it was] when he cleared North Korean airspace and his parents were allowed to call me to let me know.

[U]p to a week before that, the best information we had — shows you how reliable that was — was that he's healthy, he's being kept in a guesthouse, and he's been “doing light gardening.”

When I was in Pyongyang in late September and I asked to see him, I was refused. They said, "Look, he's not like other prisoners in the past. He's a prisoner of war."

I have to admit, and it's devastating for me, it was very convenient for me to believe it, because it made no sense for me that the North Koreans would harm him. They have an interest in proving that they take care of the people that are in their custody.

[But] in the past, the Swedish ambassador would have been allowed to see the Americans. It was true about Otto, [but only] one visit [happened] in March of last year.

Sarah Wildman

In Venezuela, were you able to visit?

Mickey Bergman

We have ways of knowing that Josh Holt is alive. We also know he's not healthy. He, from what we understand, has lost a lot of weight. That's what we try to appeal on, to the Venezuelans, “You don't want something bad to happen to him. That's not going to serve anything for you.” Therefore, a humanitarian gesture. When you show such goodwill, when you release him, it can open a new page in relations and conversations [with the US].

Sarah Wildman

Did we fully answer how you know you're actually speaking with a true representative of Kim Jong Un or not?

Mickey Bergman

That goes back to the engagement part, so for example, the current UN ambassador from North Korea in New York is a person that worked with Gov. Richardson back in 1995, when Richardson went to visit [North Korea] and bring back a downed US Army helicopter pilot and the body of his co-pilot. It was seen as a positive in the US, and it was seen as a positive in North Korea. These people are still in the system.

It's true that in dictatorships or totalitarian regimes, those people stay in the system much longer than in democracies; therefore, the relationships last longer. That's kind of, I guess it's an ironic way of looking at it.

Sarah Wildman

When do you bring in the media?

Mickey Bergman

Warmbier did not get a lot of media press on this — by choice, not by our choice but [from] the family and the government. I think Fred and Cindy were referring to it as “strategic patience.”

With the Warmbier family, at some point, [they] decided the era of strategic patience was over for them.

Sarah Wildman

It was the family's decision?

Mickey Bergman

Yeah.

Sarah Wildman

How do you sleep at night? How do you not feel terrified by this?

Mickey Bergman

When you work on a case, you spend a lot of time thinking through things. You have scenarios in your head. There are moments in which you think, "Oh, my God, we're going to make it happen." Then you have terrible scenarios in your head. The actual, the reality of what happened to Otto never entered my scenarios.

Sarah Wildman

Wow.

Mickey Bergman

Which emotionally was just shocking and devastating.

I returned to Cincinnati for his funeral service. I was sitting on the stairs next to the front of his house. Family and friends, a community, came out in support of [the Warmbier family]. It was beautiful to see. It reminded me of why we do what we do, but also the consequences of failure. This should have been his homecoming.

If somebody has the arrogance to think, "Oh, no, we know how to do it. We are safe when we do it," [he] is probably in for surprises. I've learned not to have that arrogance.

There are still three Americans [in North Korea].

[I’m] not sure [what] our ability to work with North Korea in the short term will be, because they're obviously not happy with the way we've been responding to this. We have not been approached by their family, so we’re not actively working on their case.

Sarah Wildman

Now with all this negative press, you mean?

Mickey Bergman

The governor gave interviews. He's an honest guy. He doesn't hide things with how he felt and how he feels about what they've done to Otto Warmbier; they obviously really didn't like that.

Sarah Wildman

Did they express it to you?

Mickey Bergman

We have an exchange of messages. It's possible that our channel has been damaged. My argument is that if our channel has been damaged, it's not because of the words the governor used on an interview. It's because of the actions they've taken.

Correction: a previous version of this story misidentified Jeffrey Fowle’s name and age. His bible was also not left in a hotel room, but in a club frequented by foreigners.