Merrill Newman holds hands with wife Alicia shortly after landing at San Francisco International Airport yesterday. RIGHT: US Vice-President Joe Biden at the Observation Post Ouellette during a tour of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), near the border village of Panmunjom, which has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War, yesterday.
SEOUL: An 85-year-old retired American soldier who was held by North Korea for more than a month arrived in San Francisco yesterday, to be reunited with his family.
Merrill Newman’s United Airlines flight landed shortly after 9am local time, a Reuters witness said. North Korea deported Newman late on Friday, ending the saga of his return to the North six decades after he advised South Korean guerrillas who are still loathed by Pyongyang.
“I am very glad to be on my way home,” a smiling Newman told reporters after arriving at the airport in Beijing from Pyongyang. “And I appreciate the tolerance the [North Korean] government has given to 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”.
US Vice-President Joe Biden, who is in Seoul, welcomed the release and said he talked by phone to Newman in Beijing, offering him a ride home on Air Force Two. Biden said Newman declined because there was a direct flight to his home state of California. Newman’s son, Jeffrey, said he spoke briefly to his father and that he was “in excellent spirits and eager to be reunited with his family”.
“As you can imagine this has been a very difficult ordeal for us as a family, and particularly for him,” he said in a statement read outside his home in Pasadena. The family said they would say more about Newman’s unusual journey after he had rested.
“The DPRK today released someone they never should have had in the first place,” Biden said, referring to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the country’s official name. “At least there’s one bright piece of sunshine, that he will be released and return to his family.” Biden said he had “played no direct role” in securing Newman’s release and offered no thoughts on why the North decided to release him.
North Korea said it was releasing Newman because had apologised for his alleged crimes during the Korean war and because of his age and medical condition.
Aside from an awkwardly worded alleged confession last month, Newman has yet to speak publicly since being taken off a plane by North Korean authorities on October 26 while preparing to leave the country after a 10-day tour. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf urged Pyongyang to pardon “as a humanitarian gesture” another American, Kenneth Bae, who has been held in the North for more than a year.
Members of a group of former South Korean guerrillas who fought behind enemy lines during the 1950-53 Korean war said in an interview last week with the Associated Press that Newman was their adviser. Some have expressed surprise that Newman would take the risk of visiting North Korea given his association with their group, which is still remembered with keen hatred in the North.
The televised statement read by Newman said he was apologising for killing North Koreans during the war, attempting to meet surviving guerrilla fighters he had trained during the conflict and reconnect them with their wartime colleagues living in South Korea, and criticising the North during his recent trip. Newman’s comments have not been independently confirmed.
Some of those former guerrillas of the Kuwol unit in Seoul remember Newman as a handsome, thin American lieutenant who got them rice, clothes and weapons during the later stages of the war but largely left the fighting to them.
Newman oversaw guerrilla actions and gave the fighters advice, but he was not involved in day-to-day operations, according to the former rank-and-file members and analysts. Newman was scheduled to visit South Korea to meet former Kuwol fighters after his North Korea trip.
After he was detained, Newman was visited at a Pyongyang hotel by the Swedish ambassador, his family said in a statement, and he appeared to be in good health, receiving his heart medicine and being checked by medical personnel. Sweden handles American citizens’ interests in Pyongyang as the North and the United States have no formal diplomatic ties.
Jeffrey Newman has previously said that his father, an avid traveller and retired finance executive from California, had always wanted to return to the country where he fought during the Korean War.
Before Newman, North Korea detained at least six Americans since 2009; five of them have been either released or deported after prominent Americans such as former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter travelled to Pyongyang. The sixth detainee, Bae, has been held for more than a year Bae. He is a Korean-American missionary and tour operator whom the North accuses of subversion.
Biden earlier visited the demilitarised zone which has split the Korean peninsula since the 1950-1953 Korean War.