Detained American citizen Merrill Newman travelled to North Korea on a ‘private tour’ with British tour company Juche Travel Services, company founder David Thompson confirmed to NK News on Friday.
The agency, which only learned that it was involved in Newman’s case on Thursday, said that it currently had no information as to why the 85 year old Korean War veteran had been removed from a flight leaving Pyongyang on October 26.
“Mr. Newman had in place all necessary and valid travel documents to take his tour. We have no information concerning what has occurred to result in the current situation,” Thompson said in a statement emailed to NK News.
“Mr. Newman travelled with one other gentleman to the DPRK on a private tour booked via Juche Travel Services between 17th and 26th October 2013.”
Unlike group tours – which are usually accompanied by one or two Western staff and the mandated two local North Korean guides – ’private’ tours are normally only accompanied only by the requisite two North Korean guides.
‘Private tours’ therefore inherently carry increased risk for visitors, lacking the protection of accompanying Western guides who can help guide discussion away from controversial topics such as the Korean War – a topic which Newman was said to have discussed immediately prior to apprehension.
According to Newman’s son, the 85 year old had a conversation with his guide that “had not gone well” about the Korean War on the final night of his tour, the New York Times said on Friday.
“The question is what that conversation with the minder and an unidentified government official was about,” North Korea watcher Leonid Petrov told NK News.
While Juche Travel Services said that Newman, who served as an infantryman for three years during the Korean War, had been briefed before travel in Beijing on the dos and don’ts of travel in North Korea, there was in effect nothing to prevent Newman from raising sensitive subjects during his stay.
“He probably was looking for graves or insisting on some additional places to visit and was not permitted. That could easily have made him upset or say something reckless that might have triggered the arrest,” Petrov told NK News.
Another source, who insisted on anonymity due to regular travel in North Korea, reaffirmed to NK News the sensitivity of talking about the Korean War while visiting the DPRK:
“After that conversation on the Korean War, I’m 95% certain that those Koreans who heard it would have had to file a report with the Security Bureau. That report would have then been read by the relevant security department the next morning, giving them just enough time to nab the guy before he flew away.
“The war is still very sensitive,” the source underscored.
This year North Korea has invested significant resources in developing infrastructure that could be used to attract tourists, including an international class ski resort near the port city of Wonsan and several new water parks around Pyongyang. The arrest then of 85 year old Newman, which led to a blanket State Dept. travel warning being isused against all American travel to North Korea, has therefore led to confusion about Pyongyang’s intentions among some observers.
“I’m flabbergasted at this action by the North Koreans,” former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson told the New York Times on Friday. “It means that possibly there’s no one in charge, and that the relationship with the United States, unfortunately, is not going to be helped by this incident.”
But a source that travels regularly to North Korea told NK News that viewing the arrest of Newman as an indicator of Pyongyang’s over-arching objectives simplifies what is actually a layered, multi-polar power structure.
“When someone says, “Wow, detaining this guy is bad for their tourism industry or relations with America – why would “they” do that?” it is important to remember that the “they” is not an accurate portrayal of the actual situation.
“They” implies that there is a unified incentive structure amongst all domestic organs. But this is a complex issue related to the inner workings of North Korean organizations”
“‘These [organizations] all have different responsibilities and different interests. You need to figure out who the organization responds to, who their political protectors are, and which political branch they answer to.”
As of yet, North Korean state media outlets have mentioned nothing about Newman’s arrest, a factor that differentiates his case from the arrest of other U.S. nationals in recent years.
In fact, the arrest of Dutch stamp collector William van der Bijl in 2011 is the only other time a foreigner arrested by North Korea has not been mentioned directly by state media.
“Normally the North Koreans acknowledge these kinds of incarcerations fairly soon after they they occur,” David Straub, a long-time North Korea watcher at Stanford University said on Wednesday.
“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,” Straub added.
Andrei Lankov, another long-time North Korea watcher based at Kookmin University in Seoul, echoed that the arrest was unlike ‘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.”
Kenneth Bae is a Korean-American that has been imprisoned in North Korea since November 2012.
“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.
Newman is the seventh U.S. national to be arrested in North Korea since 2009.
North Korea and the U.S. are still technically at war, having never signed a formal peace treaty.
Picture: NK News