SEOUL – North Korea on Saturday deported an elderly U.S. citizen, apparently ending the saga of Merrill Newman’s return to the country six decades after he advised South Korean guerrillas still loathed by Pyongyang.
North Korea made the decision because the 85-year-old Newman, who had been detained since late October, apologized for his alleged crimes during the Korean War and because of his age and medical condition, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.
“I am very glad to be on my way home,” a smiling Newman told reporters after arriving at Beijing airport from Pyongyang. “And I appreciate the tolerance the (North Korean) government has given me to be on my way.”
“I feel good,” Newman said, adding with a laugh that the first thing he planned to do was “go home and see my wife.”
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who was visiting Seoul, welcomed the release and said he had talked by phone with Newman, offering him a ride home on Air Force Two. Biden said Newman declined because of a direct flight to his home state of California later Saturday.
Last month, Newman read from an awkwardly worded alleged confession that apologized for, among other things, killing North Koreans during the war. They were his first words since being taken off a plane Oct. 26 by authorities while preparing to leave the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as the North is officially known, after a 10-day paid tour. Analysts questioned whether the statement was coerced, and former South Korean guerrillas from the Kuwol unit who had worked with Newman and fought behind enemy lines during the 1950-53 Korean War disputed some of the details.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf urged Pyongyang to pardon “as a humanitarian gesture” another American, Kenneth Bae, who has been held by the North for more than a year.
Members of the former South Korean guerrilla group said in an interview last week that Newman was their adviser. Some have expressed surprise that Newman would take the risk of visiting the DPRK, given his association with their group, which is still remembered with keen hatred in the North. Others, however, were amazed Pyongyang still considered Newman a threat.
“Why did North Korea make such a big fuss?” Park Chan-wu, a former guerrilla who collaborated with Newman during the war, said Saturday. “It’s been 60 years since he worked as our adviser.”
The televised statement read last month by Newman said he was trying to meet surviving guerrillas he had trained during the conflict and reconnect them with their wartime colleagues living in the Republic of Korea, as the South is known, and that he had criticized the North during his recent trip. Newman’s comments haven’t been independently confirmed. North Korea has a history of allegedly coercing statements from detainees.
Newman’s political value had “expired,” explained Chang Yong-seok, a senior researcher at Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies. Newman’s written apology and the TV broadcast were enough to let North Korea show outsiders that it has maintained its dignity — something the proud country views as paramount, said Chang.
Chang said that detaining Newman also hurt impoverished Pyongyang’s efforts to encourage tourism. “Keeping a tourist who entered the country after state approval doesn’t look good for a country that is trying to boost its tourism industry,” Chang said.