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85-year-old American granddad released from North Korea

Merrill Newman had been visiting Pyongyang as a tourist when he was accused by the North Korean goverment of committing a number of crimes.

People watch a TV news programme showing Merrill Newman released by North Korea.
People watch a TV news programme showing Merrill Newman released by North Korea.
Image: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

NORTH KOREA TODAY released a detained American veteran of the Korean War as US Vice President Joe Biden visited the world’s last Cold War frontier.

US officials said Merrill Newman, an 85-year-old from California, headed home after arriving in Beijing.

Newman had been visiting Pyongyang as a tourist when he was taken from a plane that was just about to leave the North Korean capital on 26 October. North Korea had accused him of committing crimes both as a tourist and during his participation in the Korean War six decades ago.

The official North Korean news agency today said it deported him “from a humanitarian viewpoint”, citing his “sincere repentance” as well as his age and health condition.

His release came hours before Biden visited the demilitarised zone which has split the Korean peninsula since the 1950-1953 Korean War.

Wearing a baseball cap and brown bomber jacket, Biden visited a front-line hilltop observation post and surveyed the North Korean landscape through a pair of binoculars.

imageJoe Biden in South Korea today. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

“The DPRK (North Korea) today released someone they should never have had in the first place, Mr. Newman,” Biden said earlier after laying a wreath at the war memorial in Seoul.

“It’s a positive thing they’ve done,” said Biden, visiting South Korea as the last stop on a three-country Asia tour that has already taken him to Japan and China.

Biden also urged Pyongyang to free another US citizen, Kenneth Bae, a 45-year-old tour operator who was arrested a year ago and sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour on charges of seeking to topple the government.

Biden said Bae was being held for “no reason” and “should be released immediately”.

Plans for going home

Biden’s office said the vice president had spoken to Merrill Newman by telephone.

“I offered him a ride home on Air Force Two, but as he pointed out, there’s a direct flight to San Francisco, so I don’t blame him, I’d be on that flight too,” Biden told reporters.

imageTwo North Korean soldiers watch US Vice President Joe Biden on the other side of the border. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Newman told reporters at Beijing airport that he was “very glad to be on my way home”, according to the South’s Yonhap news agency.

Asked about the first thing he planned to do, the veteran said he would “go home and see my wife”, Yonhap said.

AFP learnt from the US embassy in Beijing that Newman had departed for the United States accompanied by a consular official.

“We are pleased that Mr Merrill Newman has been allowed to depart the DPRK and rejoin his family,” US State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement.

Bae’s family welcomed Newman’s release and said in a statement: “We believe that our Kenneth should also come home soon.”

Video ‘confession’

Last week Pyongyang for the first time officially admitted holding Newman, saying he was detained for “hostile acts” after entering the country “under the guise of a tourist”.

The North also claimed that Newman masterminded espionage and subversive activities during the war and was involved in the killing of North Korean soldiers and innocent civilians.

imageMerrill Newman’s video ‘confession’ (AP Photo/Ahn Yung Joon)

Newman, a retired financial executive who spent time in North Korea during the war, had filmed a video apology confessing to his crimes.

The North released the footage and photos showing Newman — dressed in a button-down blue shirt and light, wrinkled trousers — reading the apology, which was dated November 9 and ran to nearly 600 words.

Pyongyang claimed Newman, who supervised a South Korean guerrilla unit during the war, had intended to meet surviving soldiers and pray for the souls of the dead during his trip to North Korea.

Misunderstanding

But friends and relatives have said the grandfather, who was on an organised tour, was detained due to a “misunderstanding”.

South Korean veterans who served with Newman during the war have said North Korea fabricated charges against the American. They said Newman had tried to visit Seoul following a trip to Pyongyang.

The autocratic regime has in the past freed detained Americans after visits from high-level emissaries.

Pyongyang runs one of the world’s most secretive states and independently verifying official reports is notoriously difficult.

The communist regime is widely thought to govern with an iron fist, with frequent public executions and up to 200,000 political prisoners languishing in labour camps.

- © AFP, 2013

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