North says it is holding U.S. veteran

AFP-JIJI

The wife of a U.S. retiree detained in North Korea appealed Friday for Pyongyang to release her husband after U.S. authorities said they have so far been refused access to him.

Merrill Newman, 85, was taken off a plane as he was about to leave the reclusive state nearly a month ago to end the formal tour.

His wife, Lee, called the detention “a misunderstanding” and demanded his return to an “anxious, concerned family.”

She said her husband of 56 years, a Korean War veteran, was grabbed just as he was finishing a 10-day tour of North Korea on Oct. 26, “a trip he had looked forward to making for a long while.”

“The postcards sent to friends while on that trip describe good times, good weather and knowledgeable guides,” she said, in a statement issued by the retirement complex where the couple live in Palo Alto, near San Francisco.

Without saying how she knew the details, Lee Newman recounted how her husband was detained just before his flight was due to depart for Beijing.

“Merrill, already seated, was approached by a (North) Korean official and escorted off the plane. He has been detained somewhere in North Korea since that time,” she said.

“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 appealed to Pyongyang to free her husband, saying: “The family feels there has been some dreadful misunderstanding leading to his detention and asks that the DPRK work to settle this issue quickly and to return this 85-year-old grandfather to his anxious, concerned family.”

Her appeal came as the U.S. State Department confirmed that North Korea has acknowledged it is holding Newman, but has so far barred Western officials any access to the detainee.

Due to privacy concerns, Washington refuses to confirm the identity of the person being held.

But spokeswoman Jen Psaki said: “We are working in close coordination with representatives of the Embassy of Sweden to resolve this issue.”

Since Washington and Pyongyang have no diplomatic ties, the Swedish Embassy represents U.S. interests in the country, acting as a kind of go-between.

The Swedes have been asking to visit the detained American every day, Psaki said, but “haven’t been granted that access.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday called for North Korea to release Newman. Without mentioning him by name, the top diplomat told television broadcaster MSNBC that his detention is one of many “disturbing choices by the North Koreans.”

The reclusive North is also holding U.S. national Kenneth Bae, a 45-year-old tour operator arrested a year ago as he entered the northeastern port city of Rason.

He was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor on charges of seeking to topple the government.

North Korea has in the past freed detained Americans after visits from high-level emissaries.