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What Happens During Hostage Negotiations

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We've learned more details about how American Otto Warmbier ended up back in U.S. custody in 2017. The Washington Post reported this week that North Korea presented the U.S. with a $2 million bill for Warmbier's medical care. And the Post reported that the U.S. agreed to pay in exchange for Warmbier's release. President Trump says it was never paid, but that had us wondering about what actually happens during these negotiations. So to learn more about this, we're joined in studio by Mickey Bergman. He's vice president of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement. He's worked on a number of hostage negotiations and helped negotiate with North Korea to get Warmbier released.

Mickey Bergman, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

MICKEY BERGMAN: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: President Trump says the U.S. does not pay for hostages. He specifically says no money was paid for Otto Warmbier. But the Post reported that the invoice was signed on instructions passed down from the president. So can both be true, and if so, how?

BERGMAN: I think both can be true. I think - look. It's outrageous that there's an invoice. But it's not new. The invoice was not given lately. It was given to Special Representative Yun when he went to North Korea to collect Otto Warmbier. And at that point, when you're giving that invoice, you sign, and you leave. So it's not new. That's one. Second, it's not unique, either. When...

MARTIN: It's not unique to negotiations with North Korea or...

BERGMAN: Correct - North Korea specifically.

MARTIN: North Korea specifically has a habit of this.

BERGMAN: Yeah. So when Governor Richardson in 1994 - he was a young congressman, and he was in North Korea for his first visit. At that time, a helicopter was shot down by North Korea, and two American pilots were taken. One was killed upon the impact, and the other one was alive. And Governor Richardson stayed there on assignment by President Clinton to negotiate for two weeks.

And when he got the pilots back, he got an invoice. And that invoice included a lot of legitimate things - hotels, meals, transportation, fuel - and one line about ammunition. And the governor asked the North Koreans, what is this about? And they said, well, somebody needs to pay for the bullets we used to shoot down the helicopter.

So it's - again, it's not unique. And I have to say, we all followed last summer the return of American servicemen. We've been involved - the governor has been involved in this effort. We're currently involved in more of these. The North Koreans charge for those as well.

MARTIN: How are those payments understood in diplomatic terms?

BERGMAN: So there are always lines in invoices - in the case of remains excavations, taking care of the remains, maintaining them, transfer - all of these kind of things. It happens. It exists. In other hostage cases, you would see not necessarily - and I have to distinguish between hostages and political prisoners because Otto Warmbier was a political prisoner, not a hostage.

MARTIN: And the difference being that hostages are held generally by nongovernmental...

BERGMAN: Correct.

MARTIN: ...Entities...

BERGMAN: Correct.

MARTIN: ...Like - nongovernmental groups like terrorist organizations.

BERGMAN: Yeah, the terrorist organizations or...

MARTIN: But political prisoner is understood by governments that are recognized as governments, even if they are...

BERGMAN: Yes, that is...

MARTIN: ...Autocratic regimes.

BERGMAN: ...Exactly correct. And when it comes to hostages, there is a clear U.S. policy. We do not pay ransom. We do not make concessions. When it comes to political prisoners, it's much more murky.

MARTIN: To your knowledge, was any money given to North Korea in association with the release of Otto Warmbier, however it's characterized?

BERGMAN: Not that I'm aware. I would personally be surprised if the Trump administration actually paid that invoice. However, again, when we were negotiating and trying to put the framework together for the release of Otto Warmbier, we were coupling it with a bigger package of bringing back remains of U.S. servicemen, of helping a little bit with flood-related areas in north North Korea, which was back then hit really hard - not to the North Korean government, but through humanitarian organizations. And that compiles this package of humanitarian interest, mutual humanitarian interest that - it's a bunch of gestures of goodwill that ends up getting with what you want.

MARTIN: What does this week's news tell us about how the Trump administration deals with these types of situations? Because the president likes to suggest that his techniques are very different from that of his predecessors.

BERGMAN: Look. The president attaches himself personally to stories. In terms of numbers, he touts a lot of numbers there. We tend to forget that even under Obama, three American hostages were returned from North Korea. Hostages from Iran returned. There were a lot of them. Except that never before had the president personalized it.

MARTIN: That's Mickey Bergman, vice president of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement. He was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Bergman, thank you for joining us.

BERGMAN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.