An 85-year-old American man detained and later let go by North Korean authorities described his time in custody as comfortable.
Merrill Newman, who returned to the United States this weekend, told the Santa Cruz Sentinel in California that he was kept in a hotel room, not a jail cell, and fed traditional Korean food during his detention. If anything, he was “bored,” the newspaper reported he said.
For weeks, the North Korean government offered no explanation as to why they were holding Newman. An explanation finally came last month, when state media published and broadcast what they described as the Korean War veteran’s “apology.” The word was written atop the first of four handwritten pages detailing his alleged indiscretions.
When asked about the apology, Newman gave a smirk, according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel. “Obviously, that’s not my English,” he said.
A senior administration official said that Newman’s release was the result of direct contact between Washington and Pyongyang. The official said the North Koreans had told the Obama administration in a telephone call that they were releasing Newman; no explanation was offered.
North Korea on Saturday deported an elderly U.S. tourist, apparently ending the saga of Merrill Newman‘s return to the North six decades after he advised South Korean guerrillas still loathed by Pyongyang.
North Korea made the decision because the 85-year-old Newman, who was detained since late October, apologized for his alleged crimes during the Korean War and because of his age and medical condition, according to the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.
“I am very glad to be on my way home,” a smiling Newman told reporters after arriving at the airport in Beijing from Pyongyang. “And I appreciate the tolerance the (North Korean) government has given me to be on my way.”
Last month, Newman read from an awkwardly worded alleged confession that apologized for, among other things, killing North Koreans during the war. Former South Korean guerrillas who had worked with Newman and fought behind enemy lines during the war disputed some of the details.
Members of the former South Korean guerrilla group said in an interview last week with The Associated Press that Newman was their adviser. Some have expressed surprise that Newman would take the risk of visiting North Korea given his association with their group, which is still remembered with keen hatred in the North. Others, however, were amazed Pyongyang still considered Newman a threat. Park Chan-wu, a former guerrilla who worked with Newman during the war, said Saturday. “It’s been 60 years since he worked as our adviser.”
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf urged Pyongyang to pardon “as a humanitarian gesture” another American, Kenneth Bae, who has been held in the North for more than a year.
Before Newman, North Korea detained at least six Americans since 2009. Five of them have been either released or deported after prominent Americans like former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter travelled to Pyongyang.
On October 26, an 85-year-old American man, Merrill Newman, on an organized tour of North Korea was pulled off a plane in Pyongyang just minutes before it was to depart, the man’s son told CNN on Wednesday.
The U.S. State Department is working to resolve the matter with North Korea’s top ally, China.
North Korea has not publicly acknowledged it detained Newman. But the family believes the elder Newman’s military service during the Korean War may be related to his detention, his son said.
Park Syung-je, chairman of the Seoul-based Asia Strategy Institute, says Newman may have been arrested on espionage charges. As a Korean War veteran, Newman might have told his minders he fought against North Korea. They may have reported it, and it resulted in his detention.
In 1999, a South Korean woman named Min Young-mee was detained for six days after apparently saying the wrong thing on a tour to North Korea’s Kumkang Mountains. “I hope the two Koreas reunite soon so we can visit each other,” Min said. “North Korean defectors are living well in the South.”
A North Korean minder for the tour group reported her remarks to North Korean authorities. She wasn’t allowed to return home with her tour group. After a written apology for violating North Korean laws, she safely returned to the South.
Newman is the second American being held in North Korean. Kenneth Bae, an American citizen, was arrested in November 2012 and sentenced in May to 15 years of hard labor.