An elderly man that “may” have recently been detained by North Korea has been identified as 85 year old Merrill Newman by the San Jose Mercury Press.
If true, the report confirms Tuesday’s speculation that North Korea had detained a second American tourist in twelve months, this time “from the plane on which he was to leave the country on Oct. 26″.
News of his arrest emerged less than 24 hours after the U.S. State Department issued a new warning against all travel to North Korea by American citizens.
The blanket warning, the first of its type since U.S. travel to North Korea was authorized in 1995, now appears related to news that a second U.S. national had been arrested and imprisoned in North Korea:
“The Travel Warning was updated to recommend against all travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea and also included a line that – which reflects recent events, of course, not a single case but recent events, that we have also received reports of North Korean authorities arbitrarily detaining U.S. citizens and not allowing them to depart the country,” State Dept. Spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters at a Wednesday afternoon briefing.
Arrests of Western tourists on planes departing Pyongyang’s Sunan airport are unprecedented.
Just two flights left Pyongyang the day that Newman was reported to be leaving North Korea – JS 151 to Beijing and JS 155 to Shenyang in neighboring China.
“If removed from a plane, how did this not get out before?” asked one North Korea travel expert who wished to remain anonymous.
Josh Richman, who broke news of Newman’s identity at the San Jose Mercury Press, did not explain how he acquired the information and said that neither the U.S. State Department nor Newman’s family would confirm the information.
However, a recent newsletter published by Newman’s retirement home Channing House suggested confirmation at least of his intention to visit the DPRK, going as far as detailing a colleague who was to accompany the 85 year old throughout North Korea.
“Bob Hamrdla no sooner returned from Berlin than he packed up to visit North Korea with Merrill Newman,” the newsletter said. “Merrill took Korean language lessons to prepare for their ten-day independent trip. They will be accompanied at all times by two Korean guides.”
KOREAN WAR CONNECTION
A 2005 profile on Newman’s background in the Palo Alto Weekly said that aside from contributing to a local Red Cross branch for nearly three decades, he also worked as an infantryman in the U.S. military for three years during the Korean War.
At an interview with the weekly, “Newman reminisced about his life’s experiences, which have moved him from Colusa to Berkeley to Stanford to Korea, as well as Costa Rica and Ecuador.”
The last time any Korean War veterans entered North Korea was in July, when a delegation led by Lt. j.g. Thomas Hudner visited North Korea to recover the remains of a fellow soldier killed during the 1950s era conflict.
That trip was ultimately unsuccessful, but the family coordinating the trip said that they would try and visit North Korea again in September – pending authorization by the U.S. State Department and Korean interlocutors.
A member of that delegation, Adam Makos, told NK News on Tuesday, ”We are unaware of Mr. Newman’s situation”.
In contrast to the arrest of Newman, Makos said that his delegation had been “treated him with the utmost care” and that “not once did Hudner have a concern for his health or well being. Among the Korean People’s Army, he felt comfortable in the company of fellow soldiers.”
Andrea Lee, President of New York city based Uri Tours, told NK News, “As a U.S.-based DPRK tour operator, we have safely taken Korean War vets on our tours in the past, and that alone is not a cause for arrest.”
While the San Jose Mercury Press say a Beijing based travel agency was involved in organizing Newman’s tour, calls by NK News to two of the largest DRPK tour companies in the Chinese capital provided no confirmation of the arrest early Tuesday.
“I can guarantee it was not one of our customers” said Chris White of Beijing based Young Pioneer Tours, when contacted by NK News on the issue Tuesday.
“We all know about Kenneth Bae. If this is the second American arrested in last year, I could see why State Dept. might start to get nervous,” White added.
Simon Cockerell, a tour leader from the British-owned Koryo Tours, told NK News, “We are keeping an eye on the news but have no specific extra information at this time.”
“In 20 years of operation we have never once had any of our tourists arrested or detained and we continue to operate all tours as usual,” Cockerell added.
David Straub, a long-time North Korea watcher at Stanford University told NK News that the case so far was proving “unusual”.
“Normally the North Koreans acknowledge these kinds of incarcerations fairly soon after they they occur.”
Also, “most of the incarcerations have involved Asian-Americans, Korean-Americans; this is one of the few Caucasian Americans this has happened to, and it’s the first elderly american that I can think of.”
“I think we need to wait and see what the North Koreans eventually say is the reason for their actions before speculating about it. There is no indication of religious involvement at this time, but the basic fact of the matter is that this gentleman is 84-85 yrs old, an elderly man, presumably not a threat in any way to North Korea, so this is, even by North Korean standards, an extraordinary thing.”
“At his age, this kind of stress is quite serious,” Straub added.
Andrei Lankov, another long-time North Korea watcher based at Kookmin University in Seoul, echoed Straub’s comment that the arrest was not like ‘normal’ cases:
“It is unusual, though, since until the Kenneth Bae affair all foreign visitors had been perfectly safe. It might signal a change in their attitude.”
“The North Korean authorities might worry about foreigners misbehavior, so it makes sense to remind the them of their proper place. Nonetheless, too early to say anything with certainty,” Lankov added.
TRAVEL INDUSTRY ON RISE
Up to one third of all Western tourists in North Korea are now American, a move that has been facilitated in recent years by DPRK tourist authorities relaxing once burdensome restrictions on U.S. visitors and a almost 200% increase in net global visitors to North Korea.
But as the tourist industry has grown, a number of small new tourist companies have cropped up in the last 18 months – often with little experience of the DPRK.
One travel source, who wished to remain anonymous, said that it was possible that some of the newest entrants to the North Korea travel market may not have the experience necessary to brief visitors on safe travel, best practices, cultural norms in North Korea.
As a result, it was suggested that tourists travelling with some of the newest companies could be more likely to unwillingly fall afoul of North Korean laws, even though State Dept. warnings underscore the risks.
“The State Department has been issuing travel advisories about North Korea for years, but a lot of people are just too stupid to listen,” Joshua Stanton, a North Korea watcher told NK News.
“For some people, visiting North Korea is like dating Madonna — treading a tired, well-worn, loveless, and morally ambiguous path that gives some people an inexplicable feeling that they’ve entered an unexplored place. Except that Dennis Rodman already did,” Stanton added.
Despite the latest warning, Chris White of Beijing based Young Pioneer Tours told NK News that his company will bring in a group of 40 people to North Korea this week – including Washington DC rappers Pacman and Peso, who recently raised money via Kickstarter to travel to the DPRK to shoot a rap video.
“We ain’t worried about nothing,” Peso told NK News in September, when asked if he or fellow rapper Pacman were concerned they could get into trouble during their stay.
Main picture: Channing House