PALO ALTO, Calif. — 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.
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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.
“Tourism is on the rise, especially of Americans, because it’s such an isolated state. People are kind of fascinated by the novelty of going somewhere where no one else has gone,” she said.
Travel to the country is arranged through tour companies that have local guides receive tourists and help them get around, Town said. There is no North Korean consulate in the United States, so visas are obtained abroad, often in Beijing.
But entering the country legally without a tour company would be almost impossible, since North Korea requires tourists to be accompanied by guides, Town said. Merrill Newman was traveling with a friend, Bob Hamrdla, who was allowed to return to the U.S.
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 counterattack, according to the Military Times.
Jeffrey Newman told the San Jose Mercury News there is no indication North Korean authorities have confused his father with the other Merrill Newman, who is now 84 and lives in Oregon.
He said his father always wanted to visit North Korea and took lessons in the language before leaving on the nine-day trip. He said he believed North Korea would eventually release his father after realizing that all they have is an “elderly traveler, a grandfather with a heart condition.”
Korean War veteran Thomas Hudner, a retired Navy captain and Medal of Honor winner, went to North Korea in July to fulfill a promise he said he made 60 years ago to recover the remains of a pilot who was trapped in his downed fighter jet.
While in North Korea, Hudner “didn’t mention the war at all” and had no complaints about how he was treated.
“We wanted to maintain as close of relations as we could and we think we accomplished that,” he said. “They were very businesslike and helpful.”
Christine Hong, an assistant professor of East Asian studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz, said Westerners visit North Korea for several reasons: missionary or charity work, research, family reunification, stealth journalism to expose problems, adventure tourism, and business ventures.
Hong, who first visited North Korea with a peace delegation in 2008 and again this year to do child welfare research, called the situation with Newman “unfortunate because it leads people to jump to the worst possible conclusions” and “exacerbates the existing condition of fear and uncertainty.”
North Korea has detained at least six Americans since 2009, often for alleged missionary work, but it is unusual for a tourist to be arrested.
It remains unclear what led to Newman’s detention Oct. 26. A uniformed North Korean officer approached him on the plane and asked him for his passport before telling a flight attendant that Newman had to leave, the son, Jeffrey Newman, said Wednesday.
North Korea’s official state-run media have yet to comment on reports of the detention, which first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News and Japan’s Kyodo News Service.
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has been on several diplomatic missions to North Korea from his earlier role as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has been in touch with his North Korean contacts about Newman, spokeswoman Caitlin Kelleher said.