SAN FRANCISCO (CBS/AP) — The U.S. is urging North Korea to release an 85-year-old American who has been detained for more than a month.
Retired finance executive Merrill Newman, who fought in the Korean War, was taken off a plane Oct. 26 by North Korean authorities while preparing to leave after a 10-day visit.
Newman’s son has said his father wanted to return to the country where he spent three years during the war.
National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden says that given Newman’s age and health — he’s on heart medication — North Korea should release him so he can be reunited with his family.
Newman’s family said in a statement Saturday that the State Department told them that the Swedish ambassador to North Korea had visited the 85-year-old at a Pyongyang hotel. The statement said Newman reported that he was being treated well.
The family pleaded with North Korean authorities to take Newman’s health and age into account and let him go as an act of humanitarian compassion.
North Korea state media claimed Saturday that Newman apologized for alleged crimes during the Korean War and for “hostile acts” against the state during a recent trip.
North Korea released video showing the 85-year-old Newman wearing glasses, a blue button-down shirt and tan trousers, reading his alleged apology, which was dated Nov. 9 and couldn’t be independently confirmed.
Pyongyang has been accused of previously coercing statements from detainees. There was no way to reach Newman and determine the circumstances of the alleged confession. But it was riddled with stilted English and grammatical errors, such as “I want not punish me.”
“I have been guilty of a long list of indelible crimes against DPRK government and Korean people,” Newman purportedly wrote in a four-page statement, adding: “Please forgive me.”
The statement, carried in the North’s official Korean Central News Agency, said the war veteran allegedly attempted to meet with any surviving soldiers he had trained during the Korean War to fight North Korea, and that he admitted to killing civilians and brought an e-book criticizing North Korea. DPRK stands for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s official name.
It wasn’t clear what would happen to Newman now. But the statement alleges that Newman says if he goes back to the U.S. he will tell the truth about the country — a possible indication that Newman could be released.
The apology can be seen as Pyongyang taking steps needed to release Newman, said Yoo Ho-Yeol, a professor of North Korea studies at Korea University in Seoul. North Korea likely issued the confession in the form of an apology to resolve Newman’s case quickly without starting legal proceedings, Yoo said.
North Korea is extremely sensitive about any criticism and regularly accuses Washington and Seoul of seeking to overthrow its authoritarian system through various means — claims the U.S. and South Korea dismiss. The State Department has repeatedly warned Americans about traveling to the country, citing the risk of arbitrary detention.
Newman, an avid traveler, was taken off a plane Oct. 26 by North Korean authorities while preparing to leave the country after a 10-day tour. His traveling companion seated next to him, neighbor and former Stanford University professor Bob Hamrdla, was allowed to depart.
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.
Whatever the reasons behind the detention, it could hurt impoverished North Korea’s efforts to encourage a growing tourism trade seen as a rare source of much-needed foreign currency.
Tourism is picking up in North Korea, despite strong warnings from the State Department, most recently this week. 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.
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