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U.S. veteran detained in North Korea returns home

Dec. 7, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Merrill Newman
U.S. tourist Merrill Newman sits in a car after arriving at Beijing airport Saturday after being released by North Korea. (AP/Kyodo News)
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An 85-year-old U.S. tourist and war veteran flew to freedom Saturday aboard a San Francisco-bound flight after being deported by North Korea.

Merrill Newman was detained in Pyongyang for more than a month for alleged “hostile acts” against the isolated and authoritarian Asian state.

Moments after landing in California, Newman looked delighted yet tired as he thanked Swedish and American embassies for their efforts to get him back to the U.S.

“I’m delighted to be home,” said Newman as he stood alongside his wife and son. “It’s been a great homecoming. I’m tired but I’m ready to be with my family now. Thank you all for the support we got. I very much appreciate it.”

Newman didn’t take questions from a crowd of reporters gathered at the airport and quickly walked off holding his wife’s hand.

Earlier in Beijing, Newman told reporters that he was happy to be returning home to Palo Alto, Calif., after being pulled from a plane leaving Pyongyang on Oct. 26 by North Korean forces.

“I’m very glad to be on my way home,” Newman said. “I appreciate the tolerance the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) government has given to me to be on my way. I feel good. I feel good. I want to go home to see my wife.”

North Korean state media said officials decided to release Newman because he apologized for his alleged war crimes, and because of his age and medical condition. It is not clear whether Newman’s confession was coerced.

A week ago, analysts told USA Today that they predicted Newman would soon be released, particularly after his confession. His age was likely to prove a key factor, as “North Korea always likes to cite humanitarian grounds for release,” said Tong Kim, an international relations professor at Korea University.

The reasons for North Korea’s detention of foreign visitors in recent years follows three main patterns: unauthorized missionary, journalist or military/intelligence activities, said John Delury, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Yonsei University.

“From a North Korean perspective, Newman did fit into the third category, but they recognized he’s an old man,” Delury said. North and South Korea “are societies where there is a respect one should show the elderly. The optics are bad for them, too, in holding on to an old man.”

North Korea has detained at least six Americans since 2009. Korean-American Kenneth Bae, sentenced to a labor camp for alleged missionary work and sedition, is the longest-serving American detainee in North Korea since the Korean War, but analysts warned that Pyongyang is treating Bae’s case differently from Newman’s.

Detained for more than a year, Bae, 44, has not enjoyed the same leniency shown to Newman, Delury said.

“There is an element of naiveté with Newman, but from North Korea’s perspective, Bae knew what he was doing,” he said.

Pyongyang is especially sensitive to missionary work, which it believes is connected to refugee groups that operate the so-called “underground railway” for defectors, Delury said.

After Newman’s detention, the State Department last month strengthened its travel advisory for North Korea. The warning now advises U.S. travelers “against all travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea.”

Despite the North’s regular rhetoric against the U.S., small numbers of American travelers continue to visit, drawn by personal history like Newman and other U.S. veterans of the Korean War or, more often, the prospect of one of the world’s most bizarre and unusual travel experiences.

The travel agency Newman used, Juche Travel Services, is a U.K.-based firm, one of a handful set up in recent years to service the small but growing market demand.

Unlike some other firms who send Western guides with all foreign tourists, Juche Travel apparently did not send any guides to accompany Newman and his traveling companion — a friend from Palo Alto, Calif., who was permitted to leave on the original flight — but entrusted them to North Korea’s state-run tour company, whose guides accompany all foreign tourists.

U.S. citizens considering visiting North Korea “should make sure they are thoroughly prepared and briefed,” said Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours, a British-owned operator.

With two decades’ experience in North Korea, Koryo Tours has taken in U.S. war veterans “without incident,” he said.

“We tell people there are certain subjects that are very sensitive in North Korea,” he said, noting the Korean War is a particularly touchy subject. “The Koreans don’t see the war as completely over, it’s not in the past, but part of the present, an ongoing, sensitive issue.”

— Yamiche Alcindor, with Calum MacLeod reporting from Beijing

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