PALO ALTO, Calif.— The wife of an 85-year-old veteran detained in North Korea begged authorities Friday to let her husband return to his family and end what she called a “dreadful misunderstanding.”
“We have had no word on the state of his health, whether or not the medications sent to him through the Swedish Embassy in North Korea have been delivered or why he was detained,” Lee Newman said in a prepared statement released in California.
North Korean officials told the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang that they were holding an American but did not confirm it was Merrill Newman, who was pulled from a plane Oct. 26 while preparing to leave the communist nation after a 10-day tour.
The Swedish Embassy is negotiating on behalf of Newman, of Palo Alto, because the U.S. has no diplomatic ties with North Korea, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in Washington.
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Until his planned departure, Newman’s trip had seemed positive, with postcards describing good times and knowledgeable guides, Lee Newman said in her statement.
“The family feels there has been some dreadful misunderstanding leading to his detention and asks that the (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) work to settle this issue quickly,” she said.
David Thompson at Juche Travel Services’ London office said in an email that Newman and his companion had booked a private tour through the agency, and arrangements were handled in North Korea through Korea International Travel, the state-run tourism office. “Mr. Newman had in place all necessary and valid travel documents to take his tour,” Thompson said.
Newman has been described as an inveterate traveler and long-retired finance executive. His son, Jeffrey Newman, said his father wanted to return to the country where he spent three years during the Korean War.
It’s not known why the elder Newman is being detained, but his traveling companion, Bob Hamrdla, said Newman earlier had a “difficult” discussion with North Korean officials about his experiences during the war, according to Jeffrey Newman.
Hamrdla, who lives in the same 11-story Palo Alto retirement-apartment building as the Newmans, has led more than 40 travel programs to Central Europe for Stanford University.
By agreement with the Newmans, Hamrdla declined an interview.
Some observers have speculated that Newman may have been mistaken for a Korean War Silver Star recipient also named Merrill Newman. The men have different middle names: The detained veteran is Merrill E. Newman; the Oregon man is Merrill H. Newman.
But Jeffrey Newman says there were no signs that was true. And in Oregon, the other Merrill Newman, 84, was mystified.
“I have no idea why this guy was detained and whether they had Googled — like anybody else can — the name and found me and thought this guy was me or whatever,” said the Merrill Newman who lives in Beaverton.
Merrill Newman doesn’t fit the pattern of the other detained Americans.
“It is hard to fathom how an 85-year-old senior citizen could pose any threat to the regime,” says Victor Cha, who holds the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., which researches international public-policy issues.
North Korea has detained at least six Americans since 2009, including two journalists accused of trespassing and several missionaries accused of spreading Christianity. Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American Christian missionary and U.S. citizen from Lynnwood, is now the longest-serving U.S. detainee in North Korea since the end of the Korean War. Accused of planning a religious coup, he was sentenced in April to 15 years of hard labor.
Kim Dong-jil, a South Korean professor who is deputy director of Peking University’s Center for Korean Peninsular Studies, said a low profile by the U.S. government and media could lead to Newman’s quick release.
“The North Korean authorities know it would do no good to detain an elderly man for a long time because of human-rights concerns,” he said.
Material from the San Jose Mercury News is included in this report.