This 2005 photo provided by the Palo Alto Weekly shows Merrill Newman, a retired finance executive and Red Cross volunteer, in Palo Alto, Calif. The 85-year-old American veteran of the Korean War has been detained in North Korea since last month. (Nicholas Wright / AP)
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SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — Merrill Newman doesn’t fit the pattern of other Americans detained by North Korea in recent years.
By all accounts, he wasn’t a missionary or a journalist. He had no apparent political or religious agenda for the government of Kim Jong Un. Instead, he visited North Korea as a curious tourist, according to his son, eager to reconnect with a country where he’d served as an infantryman during the Korean War, six decades ago.
The mystery, then, about why Pyongyang has held this 85-year-old for a month after dragging him off a plane at the end of a nine-day tour has baffled Newman’s friends and family — as well as analysts who study North Korea. The U.S. and North Korean governments haven’t helped answer the questions, so far providing no public details.
“I find this pretty weird,” Robert Kelly, a political scientist at Pusan National University in South Korea who has traveled as a tourist to North Korea, said of Newman’s detention. “I don’t see any of the usual signs — such as missionary activity or overt law-breaking — that lead to detention.”
Whatever the reasons behind the detention, it could hurt impoverished Pyongyang’s efforts to encourage a growing tourism trade seen as a rare source of much-needed foreign currency. “This obviously jeopardizes North Korea’s long, painstaking effort to build a tourism industry,” Kelly said in an email.
Tourism is picking up in North Korea, despite strong warnings from the U.S. State Department, most recently this week, about the risk of arbitrary detention. Americans travel there each year, many as part of humanitarian efforts or to find long-lost relatives or to see a closed society few outsiders get to visit.
Newman has been described as an inveterate traveler and long-retired finance executive from California. His son, Jeffrey Newman, said his father wanted to return to the country where he spent three years during the Korean War.
Americans have been making the trip to North Korea in increasing numbers over the past two years, said Jenny Town, assistant director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
They do so knowing that caution is needed in a country that views outsiders with suspicion. Tour groups, Kelly said, are careful to tell visitors “not to say anything foolish, make politically risky jokes, critique the ideology and so on.”
North Korea has detained at least six Americans since 2009, including two journalists accused of trespassing and several Americans, some of whom are of Korean ancestry, accused of spreading Christianity. Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American missionary and tour operator, has been detained for more than a year. North Korea sees missionary work as a Western threat to its authoritarian government.
It’s possible that North Korea could try to use Newman as a diplomatic pawn in an interminable nuclear standoff with Washington — something analysts say Pyongyang has done previously with detained Americans. Several of them were only released after high-profile visits to Pyongyang by prominent Americans, including former presidents Billy Carter and Bill Clinton.
While detaining a tourist is rare, said Yoo Ho-Yeol, a professor of North Korea studies at Korea University in Seoul, Newman’s background as a war veteran, while probably not the main reason for his detention, may be a good way for Pyongyang to indirectly pressure Washington to resume long-stalled nuclear disarmament-for-aid talks and other issues.
“He’s someone who the U.S. government would pay great attention to,” Yoo said.
Pyongyang has called for a resumption of those nuclear talks, which have been stalled since 2008, but insists it must be recognized as a nuclear power. Washington balks at that and says talks won’t happen until North Korea first shows signs it will abide by past nuclear disarmament commitments.
It’s unclear what led to Newman’s detention Oct. 26. His son, Jeffrey Newman, said that he heard from Bob Hamrdla, Newman’s traveling companion who was allowed to return to the U.S., that before Newman 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.
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.
But Jeffrey Newman has told reporters that there’s no indication North Korean authorities have confused his father with the other Merrill Newman, who is now 84 and lives in Oregon.
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 said he had no complaints about how he was treated.
Still, the Korean War service of American tourists in North Korea could be sensitive. That conflict ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula still technically at war — something Pyongyang’s propaganda frequently raises in criticism that Washington and Seoul seek to bring down its government.
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.
Associated Press writers Eun-Young Jeong in Seoul, Lisa Leff, Martha Mendoza and Sudhin Thanawala in San Francisco, Robert Jablon in Pasadena, California, and researcher Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this story.