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Long Island lawyer worked to free Otto Warmbier from North Korea

Michael J. Griffith of Amagansett on Tuesday, June

Michael J. Griffith of Amagansett on Tuesday, June 20, 2017, discussed the death of Otto Warmbier, the American college student who died Monday in his home state of Ohio, days after he was medically evacuated from North Korea. Griffith, a lawyer, had worked behind the scenes to try to free Warmbier after North Korea sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor in March 2016. Warmbier's family said it was told he had been in a coma since shortly after his sentencing. Credit: News 12 Long Island

A Long Island lawyer worked diligently behind the scenes to free American college student Otto Warmbier after North Korea sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor.

But days after Warmbier’s release, Michael Griffith of Amagansett, an international defense attorney, still doesn’t know if any of his efforts paid off.

The State Department has said little about the release other than to confirm that department officials began meeting last month with North Korean officials in Oslo, Norway.

Griffith, 73, told Newsday he teamed with former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has helped other Americans held by North Korea.

“For the past year, we’ve been working to try to help Otto if we could,” the attorney said this week.

Griffith’s efforts included coming up with several options for a negotiated release, to be presented to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson via a Trump confidant.

Richardson, who said he contacted North Korean officials 20 times last year in hopes of having Warmbier freed, is a former UN envoy who founded the Sante Fe-based Center for Global Engagement.

He said Griffith was “helpful with his contacts, his experience and with his ties to the Trump administration.”

Griffith has aided other Americans imprisoned abroad, starting with Billy Hayes, formerly of North Babylon, whose escape from Turkey after a hashish conviction was portrayed in the 1978 film “Midnight Express.”

North Korea typically detains Americans as bargaining chips and declines humanitarian pleas to let them go until their usefulness is exhausted, Richardson said.

He said the nation might have spurned all his overtures to avoid revealing that Warmbier was in a coma.

The University of Virginia student, 22, was sentenced in March 2016 for “subversion” after removing a propaganda banner from a wall to take home as a souvenir. North Korea said his coma was triggered by a sleeping pill taken after contracting botulism.

Warmbier’s U.S. doctors say the Ohio native suffered severe brain damage and has remained in a vegetative state since his Tuesday release.

Calling for an investigation into how North Korea treated Warmbier, Richardson said he probably was released because the nation’s position became “untenable.”

Richardson said he has advised North Korea that the best way for it to “minimize the damage” to its standing is to immediately release the three Americans and one Canadian still imprisoned.

Last summer, Griffith went to Pyongyang on an unrelated trip. Richardson gave North Korean officials the attorney’s contact information in hopes of sparking face-to-face talks on Warmbier, but that didn’t happen.

This year, Griffith again consulted Richardson on possible solutions. Griffith said he told him: “Let’s give them real options that could pique their interest.”

On May 4, Griffith said he met with the Trump confidant and suggested meeting with North Korean representatives in a neutral country.

Other options he presented were a prisoner swap involving the United States, North Korea and a third nation, and offering North Korea needed medicines in exchange for the release, Griffith said.

North Korea has said publicly only that it freed Warmbier on “humanitarian grounds.”

Griffith, a University of Virginia alum, laments what happened to Warmbier.

“Here’s a kid, an honor student . . . and [he] takes a sign off the wall, and now he’s in a coma for the rest of his life,” he said.

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