Despite strong warnings from the U.S. State Department, hundreds of Americans like the 85-year-old Korean War veteran apparently being detained in North Korea travel to the communist nation each year. Many go as part of humanitarian efforts or to find long-lost relatives. Some, like the war vet, simply want to see a closed society shrouded in mystery.
In the case of Merrill Newman, an inveterate traveler and long-retired finance executive from California, that desire was fueled by the three years he spent as an infantryman during the Korean War six decades ago, according to his son. North Korean officials detained him at the end of a nine-day trip last month as he sat in an airplane set to leave the country, the son said.
“We don’t know what this misunderstanding is all about,” Jeffrey Newman told The Associated Press as he awaited word on reported efforts by the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang to secure his father’s release. “All we want as a family is to have my father, my kids’ grandfather, returned to California so he can be with his family for Thanksgiving.”
Speaking Thursday to reporters in Beijing, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davies wouldn’t confirm Newman’s detention but said, generally, that U.S. officials were working with Swedish diplomats “to try to move this issue along and of course calling on North Korea … to resolve the issue and to allow our citizens to go free.” Sweden acts as America’s protecting power in North Korea because Washington and Pyongyang don’t have official diplomatic relations.
For the U.S. government to acknowledge that someone is being held, a consular official must see the detainee and confirm the identity. In this case, since Sweden is the diplomatic intermediary for the U.S. in North Korea, one of its officials needs to see Newman.
The State Department this week revised its travel warning for North Korea to advise all U.S. citizens against going there, saying it had received reports of authorities “arbitrarily detaining U.S. citizens and not allowing them to depart the country.”
Although travel to North Korea is not common, Americans have been making the trip in increasing numbers since the country opened itself up to American tourism two years ago, said Jenny Town, assistant director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Newman’s son said that he heard from Hamrdla that before his father was detained he had had a “difficult” discussion with North Korean officials about his experiences during the 1950-53 war between U.S.-led United Nations forces and North Korea and ally China. That war ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula still technically at war.
Another U.S. veteran of the Korean War named Merrill Newman was awarded the Silver Star in 1952 for leading his Marine platoon in a series of attacks that inflicted heavy casualties on North Korean troops and for taking effective defensive actions during a massive counter-attack, according to the Military Times.