The U.S. government pleaded Saturday for North Korean authorities to release 85-year-old Merrill Newman, with a spokeswoman saying officials are “deeply concerned” about him and another American Kenneth Bae being held in the isolated East Asian nation.
So how did an elderly retired financial consultant and Korean War veteran become the central figure in an international dispute? Why is there such animosity still tied to a conflict, the Korean War, that ended six decades ago? And why is this all unfolding now?
University of California Berkeley professor Steven Weber characterized it as “highly scripted political theater.” Weber, a former consultant to the U.S. Commission on National Security, has a theory: “They are trying to get the Western media to pay attention.”
Largely shut itself off from the rest of the world, North Korea’s leaders and state media often use saber-rattling rhetoric to unite citizens against what Weber described as “nasty outsiders” — which, not coincidentally, are chiefly South Korea and the United States, just as during the Korean War.
The discord in recent years has centered mostly on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, with the international community taking punitive measures such as economic sanctions to hold Pyongyang in check.
North Korea hasn’t been alone. Iran, too, has long been an international target because of its nuclear program, though that landscape has changed with the recent diplomatic accord. That fact may not be lost on Pyongyang, said Weber, who surmised North Korea may be particularly eager to get the world’s focus and, ideally, concessions in the process.
Added Weber: “If the Iran thing gets settled peacefully, then guess who’s left?”