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Former New Mexico Governor Discusses His Role In Otto Warmbier Negotiations


The Hamilton County Coroner's Office in Cincinnati is investigating the death of Otto Warmbier. A public funeral is planned for Thursday. The 22-year-old died yesterday less than a week after being returned to Ohio from North Korea in a coma. Doctors at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center described his condition as a state of unresponsive wakefulness. President Trump talked about Warmbier's death today.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's a total disgrace what happened to Otto. That should never ever be allowed to happen. And frankly, if he were brought home sooner, I think the result would have been a lot different.

MCEVERS: One of the people who had been working to get Warmbier released sooner is former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. His foundation, the Richardson Center, helps negotiate the release of political prisoners. Richardson started working on the case just after Warmbier was detained in January 2016, and he says he had a lot of meetings with North Korean officials.

BILL RICHARDSON: I've talked to him a total myself and my chief of staff 20 times in New York. My executive director, Mickey Bergman, went to North Korea at the end of the year with the support of the Obama administration. We offered private humanitarian aid. North Koreans never responded. They never said yes or no. They never agreed to have me visit as I have in the past - a total mystery but obviously a real cover-up.

MCEVERS: What do you think happened?

RICHARDSON: What I think happened is that the North Koreans engaged in some kind of interrogation, and the interrogation went wrong, that it affected his brain, that he then went into a coma. I don't think they're foolish enough to engage and torture a 21-year-old boy who just stole a political banner. Yeah, he's a bargaining chip, but there's no reason why he might have been tortured.

But with the North Koreans in the past, you could get prisoners out in exchange for high-level visits, humanitarian assistance. With Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea now, we could make a deal with his father on prisoners, and we've been able to but not with this man. We don't know what he wants. We don't know what makes him tick. Obviously it's something very bad.

MCEVERS: There still are three other American hostages in North Korea. What do we know about them? What does this mean for the efforts to get them released?

RICHARDSON: Well, if the North Koreans are smart, they'll let them go as a gesture of contrition and goodwill after this disaster. They were visited by the American diplomat in North Korea when he went to get Otto. I suspect they're in - I won't say good condition, but at least they're there. I think the State Department would have a better feel for how they're doing. But you know, this is Americans held as bargaining chips. There's also a Canadian there that we should be concerned about.

MCEVERS: You know, relationships between the U.S. and North Korea are already basically non-existent. Have you talked to the president about this, and what do you think the U.S.'s options are going forward?

RICHARDSON: Well, we have to be sending a very strong message that North Korea needs to have a suitable explanation. Secondly, we need to make sure that there's transparency on their part, maybe a human rights investigation by the U.N. But I wouldn't be opposed to putting more sanctions on North Korea. I don't think the military option makes any sense. I think eventually diplomacy must rule but not for now. I'm very sour and sad and angry right now.

MCEVERS: It's a tough question to ask, but you know, at this time, some people are pointing fingers at one administration or another. Do you think that's useful at this time?

RICHARDSON: It's not useful 'cause I worked with the Obama administration, and they were aware of this. The North Koreans were waiting for the new administration to come in. The Obama people tried. But the election happened, and the North Koreans wanted to probably deal with the Trump administration. And so they gave the Obamas no answer and didn't release Otto or disclose anything as they should have.

MCEVERS: Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson - his foundation, the Richardson Center, helps negotiate the release of political prisoners. Thank you for your time - appreciate it.

RICHARDSON: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.