Get breaking news alerts via email

Click here to manage your alerts
This 2005 photo provided by the Palo Alto Weekly shows Merrill Newman, a retired finance executive and Red Cross volunteer, in Palo Alto, Calif. An 85-year-old American veteran of the Korean War has been detained in North Korea since last month. The son of Merrill Newman told the San Jose Mercury News on Wednesday his father was taken off a plane set to leave North Korea on Oct. 26. Jeffrey Newman said no reason was given. (AP Photo/Palo Alto Weekly, Nicholas Wright)
Detained American’s wife asks for his return
First Published Nov 22 2013 03:07 pm • Last Updated Nov 22 2013 03:09 pm

Associated Press

PALO ALTO, Calif. • North Korean authorities have confirmed they have detained an American citizen, the State Department said Friday, while the wife of the 85-year-old Korean War veteran being held there implored authorities to let her husband return to his "anxious, concerned family."

Join the Discussion
Post a Comment

North Korea told the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang about the detention and said it hasn’t granted diplomats access to the person who was not named, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.

The Swedish Embassy is negotiating on behalf of Merrill Newman because the U.S. has no diplomatic ties to North Korea.

In California, Newman’s wife, Lee Newman, said in a prepared statement, "The family feels there has been some dreadful misunderstanding leading to his detention.

Her husband was set to end a 10 day tour of North Korea on Oct. 26. But just before he was slated to fly out, he was escorted from his flight by a North Korean official.

"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," she said.

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 him for a month has baffled Newman’s friends and family — as well as analysts who study North Korea.

story continues below
story continues below

"We’re concerned about him," said Barbara Ingram, a neighbor n the Channing House retirement community, an 11-story apartment house where the Newmans live.

"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. His son, Jeffrey Newman, said his father wanted to return to the country where he spent three years during the Korean War.

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 Jimmy 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.

Next Page >

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Top Reader Comments Read All Comments Post a Comment
Click here to read all comments   Click here to post a comment

About Reader Comments

Reader comments on sltrib.com are the opinions of the writer, not The Salt Lake Tribune. We will delete comments containing obscenities, personal attacks and inappropriate or offensive remarks. Flagrant or repeat violators will be banned. If you see an objectionable comment, please alert us by clicking the arrow on the upper right side of the comment and selecting "Flag comment as inappropriate". If you've recently registered with Disqus or aren't seeing your comments immediately, you may need to verify your email address. To do so, visit disqus.com/account.
See more about comments here.
Staying Connected
Contests and Promotions
  • Search Obituaries
  • Place an Obituary

  • Search Cars
  • Search Homes
  • Search Jobs
  • Search Marketplace
  • Search Legal Notices

  • Other Services
  • Advertise With Us
  • Subscribe to the Newspaper
  • Access your e-Edition
  • Frequently Asked Questions
  • Contact a newsroom staff member
  • Access the Trib Archives
  • Privacy Policy
  • Missing your paper? Need to place your paper on vacation hold? For this and any other subscription related needs, click here or call 801.204.6100.