SAN JOSE, Calif.— An 85-year-old Korean War veteran and globetrotter from Palo Alto is being detained in North Korea, where he was removed from a plane three weeks ago while leaving the reclusive country at the end of a visit, setting off a mysterious and tense diplomatic effort to free him.
North Korean authorities detained Merrill E. Newman on Oct. 26 as he and a neighbor wrapped up a vacation booked through a Beijing-based tour business.
Newman, a retired financial executive, has not been heard from since he was taken off the plane at Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport.
The case was initially kept secret at the urging of his family. Word first began to leak out late Tuesday, when the State Department issued a cryptically worded advisory against travel to North Korea. Without mentioning Newman’s name, the advisory warned that the department had received reports of “authorities arbitrarily detaining U.S. citizens and not allowing them to leave the country.”
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The day before he was to depart, Newman met with North Korean officials, who discussed his Army service in the Korean War more than a half-century earlier, Newman’s son, Jeffrey Newman, said Wednesday night.
Merrill Newman was slightly unnerved, his son said, but went to dinner and thought nothing of it until the next day, five minutes before takeoff, when he was escorted off the plane.
His traveling companion, Bob Hamrdla, released a statement Wednesday, calling Newman’s detention “a terrible misunderstanding.”
“I hope that the North Koreans see this as a humanitarian matter and allow him to return to his family as soon as possible,” said Hamrdla, a former assistant to the president of Stanford and secretary to the board of trustees.
Jeffrey Newman said it’s hard to believe his father’s military service would be the reason for his detention. “There have been other Korean veterans who’ve been back,” he said. “My dad was not breaking any new ground. He’s always wanted to go to North Korea; it’s been a lifelong thing.
“Like the guys who go back to Normandy, the World War II veterans. These places had profound, powerful impacts on them as young men, and he wanted to see it again.”
Since the United States has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, Newman’s family has been working through State Department officials and the Swedish Embassy to secure his release.
Jeffrey Newman said the Swedish ambassador delivered his father’s heart medication to the North Korean foreign-affairs ministry, “but we don’t know what happened to it after that.”
His mother, he said, “is amazingly strong, but this is incredibly difficult.”
North Korea hasn’t formally acknowledged it is holding Newman, much less why, which an expert on that nation called particularly odd.
Residents at the Channing House retirement complex, where Newman lives with his wife in downtown Palo Alto, said his detention has been the topic of conversation for weeks.
“We’re all distressed, and we feel very strongly in support of” Newman’s wife, said Bill Blankenburg, 81.
A brief biography in the complex’s newsletter says the Newmans traveled the world after retiring, including sailing trips from Panama to Ecuador and from Colombia to Guatemala.
Another Channing House newsletter described how Merrill Newman took Korean language lessons to prepare for his 10-day trip with Hamrdla, who directed three of Stanford’s Overseas Study Centers in Europe and has led more than 40 travel-study programs in Central Europe. The newsletter said the two would be accompanied by two Korean guides.
Newman retired in 1984 after a career as a finance executive for tech companies, including Convergent Technologies and Shugart Associates.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1950 before joining the military and serving as an infantry officer during the Korean War. After the war, he earned a master’s degree in education from Stanford while teaching math, science and swimming at high schools in Berkeley and Livermore.
Daniel Sneider, a North Korea expert, said it’s not unprecedented for North Koreans to arrest American travelers.
“But even by North Korean standards, this is unusual,” said Sneider, associate director for research at Stanford’s Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.
Most previous detentions of U.S. citizens involved Korean Americans, Sneider said. But he can’t recall any case in which a tourist like Newman, with no apparent Korean ties, was detained.
“It’s also very unusual for the North Koreans not to acknowledge, particularly after holding the person for weeks, that they have the person,” he said. “That may indicate that they haven’t decided what to do with him yet, and therefore they don’t want to admit that they’ve arrested him.”
Sneider said Newman’s detention raised questions anew about the stability of the North Korean government under Kim Jong Un, 30, who took the helm after his father, Kim Jong Il, died in December 2011.
“The real story here is what is going on in North Korea. Who is making the decisions?” Sneider said.
North Korea was much more open about the arrest last year of Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American Christian missionary and U.S. citizen from Shoreline, Wash., who is 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.
The reason for Newman’s detention remains puzzling. Newman’s son said there’s no indication his father has been confused with a decorated Marine Corps 2nd lieutenant with a strikingly similar name Awarded the Silver Star in 1952 for heroically leading his men against North Korean troops. Merrill H. Newman of Fairview, Ore. — now 84 and living in Beaverton, Ore. — said “it is kind of creepy” that a Korean War veteran of so similar a name is imprisoned in North Korea.
“It’s a darn shame for that guy. I hope they get him out soon,” he said, adding he hasn’t traveled to North Korea since the war. “I’ve been there, done that, and I don’t want to go back.”
Material from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.