North Korea Frees Detained U.S. Veteran Accused of Korean War Crimes

In late October, an 85-year-old U.S. tourist was pulled of a plane as it was leaving Pyongyang. He was detained for over month, and until last week, was incommunicado. Why? He was accused of committing crimes during the Korean War sixty years ago. On Saturday, after much urging from the U.S. government and a sketchy video "confession", North Korea finally freed the elderly veteran to go back to his home in Palo Alto.

The geriatric veteran, Merill Newman, flew to China from North Korea Saturday morning, leaving on a United Airlines flight to San Francisco from Beijing hours later. “I’m very glad to be on my way home,” Newman said as he arrived at Beijing airport. “And I appreciate the tolerance the DPRK 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.”

“This is a great moment for us as a family and it will be even better when we are able to see him in a few hours,” his son told reporters. “After Merrill comes home and has a chance to get some well-deserved rest, we will have more to say about his unusual and difficult journey.”

US vice president Joe Biden, who is currently visiting South Korea, told journalists that he'd "played no direct role," but that he'd spoken to Newman by telephone. “I offered him a ride home on Air Force Two but as it was pointed out, there is a direct flight to San Francisco, his home. So I don’t blame him, I’d be on that flight too,” said Biden.

Last week, the North Korean news agency claimed that the elderly vet — formerly a special forces officer — was in fact behind many covert operations that resulted in the deaths of Korean civilians during the war. “He is a criminal as he masterminded espionage and subversive activities against the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea]," state media said. The pensioner also seemingly confessed and apologized in a video statement — released by North Korean state media in circumstances which remain suspect — supposedly admitting to being “guilty of a long list of indelible crimes against DPRK government and Korean people.”

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On Saturday, state media reported that the investigators claimed that "Newman entered the DPRK with a wrong understanding of it and perpetrated a hostile act against it." But they added: "Taking into consideration his admittance of the act committed by him on the basis of his wrong understanding [and the] apology made by him for it, his sincere repentance of it and his advanced age and health condition, the above-said institution deported him from the country from a humanitarian viewpoint."

Newman's release was bittersweet, however. Although the U.S. praised North Korea's decision, they also urged Pyongyang to let Kenneth Brae — an American citizen who's been held for over a year now in the repressive country, serving a 15-year hard labor sentence in punishment for "crimes against the state — go free. “It’s a positive thing they have done but they have Mr Bae who has no reason being held in the North and should be released immediately and we are going to continue to demand his release as well,” said Biden.

“We have been praying for him [Newman] and are very happy that his family will have him at the head of their table for the holidays,” the Bae family said, soon after Newman was released. “We believe that our Kenneth should also come home soon.”

The situation with North Korea is testy, to say the least. The notoriously repressive country has an infamous nuclear-weapons-building program (according to CIA estimations, it's thought to have built at least twelve nuclear devices and conducted multiple nuclear tests), and reports have recently emerged regarding its supreme ruler, Kim Jong-un ordering a purge of one of his close relatives. Washington has no direct diplomatic ties with Pyongyang (it has its consular issues managed by Sweden) and has previously had to deal with six Americans being detained in North Korea since 2009, not including Newman. To top it off, the 1950-53 Korean war — which ended without a formal peace treaty — is still part of the North Korean mindset, and is often brought up in media in a rhetoric of hostility towards the west.

Newman must be glad to be back in Frisco.