SAN FRANCISCO — The 85-year-old U.S. veteran held in North Korea for more than a month ended his journey Saturday when he landed in the United States after the North released him, citing his “sincere repentance” for his acts during the Korean War.
Merrill Newman, of Palo Alto, Calif., flew first to Beijing and then to San Francisco International Airport, where he was greeted by his wife and son.
“It’s been a great homecoming,” Newman said, smiling. “I’m tired, but I’m with my family. Thank you all for the support we got.”
As his son, Jeffrey, and security officials led him away, he fielded questions from dozens of reporters.
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Despite his captivity and the long flight, Newman displayed flashes of wit in his short answers.
Asked what he would do once he got home, he said: “I think I’ll be taking my shoes off.”
Asked to describe the food in North Korea, he said, “Healthy.”
Asked whether he would return there, he said, “Probably not.”
He did not answer any questions about his captivity in the North.
His release by North Korea came after Newman had read a stilted apology a week earlier in which he expressed regret for his actions during the war and during his nine-day visit to the country as a tourist. While serving in Korea, Newman helped train anti-Communist guerrillas, working with a unit that was particularly despised by the North for its daring raids on North Korean territory.
On his trip back to North Korea, at least according to the apology and an email released by the North, he planned to try to meet any surviving guerrillas and connect them with their old comrades in the South. North Korea, which considers itself always under threat from outside forces, maintains rigid control over its citizens, who are allowed to know little of the world beyond their border.
Newman was removed from his flight just as he was about the leave the country Oct. 26, a day after North Koreans interviewed him about his wartime activities, according to a friend who was with him. The friend was allowed to return home.
When Newman arrived in Beijing on Saturday after his release, he praised North Korean officials “for the tolerance the government has given me to be on my way,” according to The Associated Press.
Kim Yong-Hyun, a North Korea specialist at Dongguk University in Seoul, said he believed Newman’s age was a key reason North Korea had released him.
“It has likely realized that it cannot hold such an old man too long without getting international condemnation,” Kim said. “It also wanted to show to the outside world that it could be flexible and respected humanitarian concerns.”
U.S. Embassy officials met Newman when he landed in Beijing on a flight from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and they bought a ticket for his flight to San Francisco. An embassy medical officer also brought a supply of Newman’s medications to him and confirmed that he was well enough to fly home.
Vice President Joe Biden, who was in Seoul meeting South Korean leaders when Newman was released, called North Korea’s decision to set him free “a positive thing.”
Biden said he had offered Newman a ride back to the United States on Air Force Two but that Newman had decided to fly home directly to get there faster. “I don’t blame him,” Biden said. “I’d be on that flight, too.”
Biden also reminded reporters that North Korea continues to hold Kenneth Bae, a Christian missionary from Lynnwood, Wash., who was sentenced in May to 15 years of hard labor for committing “hostile acts” against the North.
Bae’s family issued a statement expressing both excitement about Newman’s release and anxiety about the fate of Bae, who has had numerous health problems during his incarceration, including diabetes, kidney stones and back pain.
“We are pleased to hear that Mr. Newman was released,” the statement read. “We have been praying for him and are very happy that his family will have him at the head of their table for the holidays. We believe that our Kenneth should also come home soon.”
The statement also said, “We have faith in our government to bring Kenneth home.”
In recent years, North Korea has detained several Americans, usually agreeing to let them go only after high-profile U.S. figures visited Pyongyang to seek their release. North Korea’s state propagandists describe such visits as U.S. capitulation before its leaders, according to North Korean defectors.
Analysts suspect North Korea tries to use such arrests to counter U.S. diplomatic pressure over its nuclear and missile programs and to force it to engage with the regime.
After months of heightened tensions after North Korea’s nuclear test in February and ensuing U.N. sanctions, the North Korean government has recently tried to force the United States and its allies to engage it with a new round of multilateral talks over its nuclear-weapons programs.
Analysts, however, said it was unlikely Newman’s release would lead the U.S. to ease its strict conditions for returning to such talks.
Kim, the analyst from Dongguk University, said there were reasons North Korea was likely tougher on Bae than on Newman, because Bae was accused of trying to spread Christianity inside the isolated Communist country.
The North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, considers Christianity and other influences from the outside world a growing threat to his efforts to keep his people isolated and ideologically untainted and has ordered the government to root out such intrusions, South Korean intelligence officials have said.