White House Urges North Korea to Release Detained U.S. Vet Merill Newman

Only hours after a video was released showing an elderly U.S. veteran "confessing" to supposedly committing crimes during the Korean war, the White House called on North Korea to release the 85-year-old pensioner to "return home and reunite with his family." Also late Saturday, the vet's family confirmed that the detained California resident — who's been held in North Korean custody for over a month now — had been visited by the Swedish ambassador, and is "in good health." But it's still not clear when, and even if, the elderly vet will be allowed to go home.

On Saturday, the White House called on Pyongyang to let Newman — as well as another detained U.S. citizen, Kenneth Brae — go free. Brae, a 45-year-old Korean-American missionary, has been held in North Korea for over a year, having been charged and convicted of "hostile acts" against the state. He is currently serving a 15-year sentence of hard labour.

"We remain deeply concerned about the welfare of the U.S. citizens held in custody in the DPRK,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. “We continue to urge the DPRK [the Democratic People's Republic of Korea] authorities to grant him amnesty and immediate release. We also urge the immediate release of Merrill Newman … given Mr. Newman's advanced age and health conditions.”

The video of Newman's statement was released earlier Saturday by North Korean state media. In it, he supposedly admits to being "guilty of a long list of indelible crimes against DPRK government and Korean people.” He says: “I realize that I cannot be forgiven for my offensives [sic] but I beg for pardon on my knees by apologizing for my offensives [sic] sincerely toward the DPRK government and the Korean people and I want not punish me [sic]."

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The Korean Central News Agency then concluded that Newman "is a criminal as he masterminded espionage and subversive activities against the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] and in this course he was involved in killings of service personnel of the Korean People’s Army and innocent civilians." But Pyongyang has previously been accused of coercing statements from prisoners, and the circumstances in which Newman purportedly confessed remain unknown.

Soon after the video was released, however, the Newman family was informed by the State Department that the veteran — who suffers from a heart condition — had been visited by the Swedish ambassador to North Korea (as America and North Korea have no diplomatic relations, Sweden manages all consular issues for the U.S.), and had been confirmed alive and well.

"We know that Merrill is in good health. He has received the medications that we sent him and medical personnel are checking on his health several times a day. Merrill reports that he is being well treated and that the food is good. As you can imagine, we had been deeply worried about all of these things," the family said.

But they added: "Our focus now is on getting him home quickly to join his loved ones, who miss him deeply. We are asking that the DPRK authorities take into account his health and his age and, as an act of humanitarian compassion, allow him to depart immediately for home."

Newman, who'd been in North Korea on a 10-day tour, was pulled off of an Air Koryo flight in North Korea on October 26, just minutes before it was set to leave for Beijing. He’d been visiting the country to “”put some closure” on his time during the army, according to his wife. Until Saturday, it remained unclear why the elderly tourist was being held by authorities — however, it's far from a rare occurrence. Since 2009, at least six other U.S. citizens have been detained in North Korea, most having been accused of propagating Christianity.

[Image via Reuters]