UPDATE 4:44PM GMT: The elderly man arrested in North Korea has been identified by the San Jose Mercury News as Merrill Newman, 85, from Palo Alto.
“Sources say North Korean authorities removed Merrill Newman, 85, from the plane on which he was to leave the country on Oct. 26. Newman and a neighbor visited the North Korea …via a tour business based in Beijing.” – more from the San Jose Mercury News
The U.S. State Department issued a new warning against all travel to North Korea by American citizens on Monday, amid rumors that North Korea detained an elderly U.S. man last month.
The blanket warning, the first of its type since U.S. travel to North Korea was authorized in 1995, was issued just one day before Japan’s Kyodo News Agency reported that an elderly U.S. national may have been detained in North Korea for breaking unspecified laws.
The Kyodo source – an unnamed diplomat – said that before arrest the elderly American man entered North Korea for sightseeing in October with a valid visa. His arrest would represent the second detention of an American citizen in a year.
A spokesperson for the U.S. embassy in Beijing told Reuters that it was aware of the Kyodo report, but had “no additional information to share at this time.”
FROM TWO TO THREE?
The U.S. State Dept. North Korea travel advisory – updated Monday due to an increased risk of “arbitrary arrest and detention” – says that since January 2009, “two U.S. citizens who entered on valid DPRK visas were arrested inside North Korea on other charges.”
But multiple sources in the North Korea travel industry told NK News that beyond the well publicized case of Kenneth Bae, there have been no known arrests of American citizens with valid tourist visas since January 2009.
However, in November 2010 American national Rev. Eddie Jun Yong-su was arrested in North Korea while visiting on a business visa, allegedly for conducting underground missionary work.
Together, this would mean that Tuesday’s Kyodo story – if true – would bring the count of arrested American visitors with legitimate visas to three.
“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.
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.
Article updated 10:54 GMT to include reference to arrest of Rev. Eddie Jun Yong-su
Article updated 13:31 GMT to include Joshua Stanton remarks
Picture: Eric Lafforgue