US war veteran held in N Korea returns home

Last updated 09:16 08/12/2013
Merrill Newman
RELEASE: Korean War veteran Merrill Newman was detained by North Korea for more than a month.

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Merrill Newman was tired and looking forward to reuniting with his family, but he was all smiles after arriving at the San Francisco airport after being detained for several weeks in North Korea.

The 85-year-old US veteran of the Korean War held the hand of his wife and was accompanied by his adult son when he briefly addressed the assembled media after disembarking from a direct flight from Beijing.

"I'm delighted to be home," he said. "It's been a great homecoming. I'm tired, but ready to be with my family."

He also thanked the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, North Korea, and US Embassy in Beijing for helping to secure his release. He declined to answer any questions and didn't discuss his headline-grabbing captivity.

Newman was detained in late October at the end of a 10-day trip to North Korea, a visit that came six decades after he oversaw a group of South Korean wartime guerrillas during the 1950-53 war.

Last month, Newman read from an awkwardly worded alleged confession that apologised for, among other things, killing North Koreans during the war. Analysts questioned whether the statement was coerced, and former South Korean guerrillas who had worked with Newman and fought behind enemy lines during the war disputed some of the details.

North Korea cited Newman's age and medical condition in allowing him to leave the country.

Newman's detention highlighted the extreme sensitivity with which Pyongyang views the war, which ended without a formal peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula still technically in a state of war. The conflict is a regular focus of North Korean propaganda and media, which accuse Pyongyang's wartime enemies Washington and Seoul of carrying on the fighting by continuing to push for the North's overthrow.

The televised statement read last month by Newman said he was attempting to meet surviving guerrilla fighters he had trained during the conflict so he could reconnect them with their wartime colleagues living in South Korea and that he had criticised the North during his recent trip.

Members of the former South Korean guerrilla group 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. Others were amazed that Pyongyang still considered Newman a threat.

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"As you can imagine this has been a very difficult ordeal for us as a family, and particularly for him," Newman's son Jeff Newman said in a statement read outside his home in Pasadena Friday night, adding that they will say more about this unusual journey after Newman has rested.

BIDEN VISITS DMZ

Newman's release comes as US Vice President Joe Biden visit to the region brought him to the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.

"Welcome to the edge of freedom," said Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Edwan of the UN Command Security Battalion.

"Good to be back," said Biden, who visited the Demilitarized Zone years earlier as a senator.

Biden said he didn't know why the North had freed Newman and said he had "played no direct role" in securing the man's freedom. Pyongyang's state-run news agency said North Korea released Newman because he had apologised for his alleged crimes during the Korean War and because of his age and medical condition.

Still, it was difficult to imagine the timing was coincidental, coming just as the vice president was headed to the DMZ for a visit that was likely to cast attention on Newman's detention and on global concerns about North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

"The release is vintage North Korea," said Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank in Hawaii.

"They always try to capture the attention away from something that might make the Republic of Korea look good and get the spotlight on them instead."

- Reuters

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