On November 30 North Korean TV broadcast footage of an old Western man who read a statement of apology. He admitted that as an American military officer during the Korean War he was responsible for training South Korea guerillas involved in killing civilians inside North Korea. He also admitted that during his recent trip to Pyongyang he was looking for some former guerillas and their family members in the hopes of re-connecting them with their former friends in Seoul.
“Shamelessly I had a plan to meet any surviving soldiers and pray for the souls of the dead soldiers in Kuwol Mt. during the Korean War,” he said. Additionally, the old man said that he committed other unspecified “hostile acts” during his trip to North Korea in October this year.
The name of the man is Merrill Newman, and he is an American tourist arrested on October 26, on his way back from the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. In a rather unusual move, the North Korean plain-clothes police apprehended him when he was already in his airplane seat, buckled and ready to leave. For nearly a month nothing was known about him, but then the North Korean authorities notified Washington that they had detained an American tourist guilty of “hostile acts” towards North Korea.
The sudden arrest of an 85-year-old American veteran of the Korean War came as a surprise to most North Korean watchers. In the past, nearly all foreigners apprehended by the North Korean authorities were illegal border crossers. They got into the North as a result of a reckless stunt (like Evan Hunziker, who swam across the border Yalu river after a bet with his friend), ill-conceived adventurism (Laura Ling, a journalist searching for some sensational footage) or as an act of political defiance (Robert Park, a political activist). All spent a few months in rather comfortable detention and were then sent back home – usually North Koreans arranged for a U.S. dignitary to come and pick the detainees.
So far, there have been only three cases that did not fit into this pattern. Back in the late 1960s, the North Korean authorities arrested two foreigners, a French and a Venezuelan who worked as editors of North Korean propaganda translations. They spent a few years in a regular North Korean prison. Then the Venezuelan was released and allowed to leave the country while his French comrade died in North Korea. Another exception is that of Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American religious activist arrested in North Korea in late 2012. However, this case is straightforward, since Bae was almost certainly involved in illegal missionary activities inside North Korea, and such activities are seen by the authorities as a subversive and dangerous behavior.
A LONG AND BLOODY WAR
Newman does not fit with any of the above cases. He visited North Korea with a valid visa through North Korea’s state tourist agency. Some 8,000-9,000 Westerners visit North Korea every year, and contrary to public perception, they have been perfectly safe there until now.
“There is little doubt that it was Newman’s participation in the Korean War 60 years ago that got him in trouble”
Judging by the statement Newman was forced to make, the North Korean authorities have accused him of two things: involvement with training anti-communist guerillas during the Korean War, and recent critical remarks about North Korean society and system.
The second charge should not be taken too seriously. One can suspect that the 85-year-old veteran may have indeed made such remarks. However, this is less unusual than most people might think. In many cases, a group of visiting foreign tourists has one or more members who enjoy making fun of North Korea’s official ideology, as well as the guides’ pompous and sometimes highly implausible statements. Open attacks on the system are less frequent, since tourists usually tend to avoid obviously dangerous topics, out of both fear and politeness. Nonetheless, such incidents are by no means unknown.
There is little doubt that it was Newman’s participation in the Korean War 60 years ago that got him in trouble. Sure, a number of American veterans of the Korean War have already visited the North without incident, but the case of Newman is different: He was not a regular soldier, but was involved in training the anti-Communist guerillas. This was confirmed by American news sources.
It appears that he was an advisor to the White Tigers, the most efficient of South Korean guerilla units operating in the North during the war. Since the United States tends to look upon the Korean War through their own nation’s lenses, they often forget that it was a very brutal civil war that pitched Korean communists and anti-communists against each other. In the course of this war, both sides committed many atrocities. Both communist and anti-communist guerilla units were infamous for their brutality in dealing with both POWs and civilians whom they suspected of having the wrong political sympathies.
As a matter of fact, guerilla warfare is all about disrupting civilian administration, terrorizing those who disagree with you and generally trying to wreak havoc. We have no way of knowing whether Newman was directly involved in such actions. As a matter of fact, I strongly suspect that he was not aware of the uglier deeds that his trainees went on to do. From my personal experience and talks with Soviet military officers who did exactly the same job as Newman at roughly the same time and place, I know that they had a general understanding about the brutal nature of guerilla warfare, but deliberately did not ask too many questions.
Newman obviously fell into a psychological trap. He probably thought of the Korean War as an episode in the now distant past, somewhat similar to the events of World War II in Europe. No one would be surprised to learn that a British ex-commandos officer went to Germany to reestablish contacts and gather information about his German resistance fighter friends. Frankly, it is a bit more difficult to image an ex-operative from the CIA drinking vodka in Moscow with his former opposite numbers from the KGB while discussing the operations of the 1960s (but it is not beyond the realms of the possible, and is also politically lacking in danger).
“He probably thought of the Korean War as an episode in the now distant past”
North Korea is rather different, though. A government whose (rather fragile) legitimacy depends upon what happened in the 1930s and 1950s still runs it. For these people, both decision makers and indoctrinated masses, Newman is still very much the enemy, and his former trainees are an embodiment of evil, whose role in North Korean official discourse is akin to the role played by Waffen SS in the Western imaginary of World War II. As a matter of fact, there is little chance that any of the people whom Newman wanted to meet are still alive. Most likely, nearly all of the “White Tigers” who did not flee south died a long time ago and their deaths were probably violent and painful (North Korean police know a thing or two about torture). Their immediate family members, if they were lucky enough to survive, spent the rest of their lives at the very bottom of North Korea’s social hierarchy exactly because one of their family members once was Newman’s trainee.
One should probably not be too critical of an 85-year-old man in the twilight of his long and eventful life. Of course, he should probably have made some enquiries and understood better the nature of the country he was going to visit. It is too late for all that now, though.
Still, there are grounds for optimism. For Newman’s family and friends, his recent appearance on North Korean TV is likely to be a good sign. So far, such public acts of repentance have been quickly followed by the release of those detained, and this is likely to happen again. There are therefore good reasons to suspect that Newman will be home by Christmas, if not earlier.
However, the major question regarding this incident is why did the North Korean authorities do it? Neither criticism of the North Korean system, nor participation in the Korean War have previously been sufficient grounds for apprehension. This particular show came at a bad time, since Pyongyang is now entertaining dreams of becoming a major tourist destination. Such dreams are not going to come true, but with some luck, the North has some chances of attracting a small number of Western tourists – it is Westerners who are the main target of the ongoing campaign to promote international tourism. Many Westerners are reluctant to go to North Korea because of safety concerns. Until recently, it was easy enough to dispute such fears, but given what has happened to Newman, such concerns seem more plausible than ever.
“This particular show came at a bad time, since Pyongyang is now entertaining dreams of becoming a major tourist destination”
North Korea is also trying to improve its relations with the United States. Doves in Washington are already struggling to find some justification for negotiating with Pyongyang (which is almost universally reviled in the United States). The arrest of an American veteran is likely to make this revulsion stronger still, thus creating an additional impediment to the resumption of talks between the two.
The exact reason for Newman’s arrest is likely to remain obscure for the foreseeable future, but one can suggest some explanations.
First, it is possible that Newman got in trouble because of his peculiar wartime experiences. He was not a regular ex-soldier, and this is the only reason while he got himself in trouble.
Second, as has been suggested elsewhere, the North Koreans may have arrested the wrong man. There is another Merill Newman, a much better known veteran of the Korean War. It is quite possible therefore that the North Koreans believed that they had gotten their hands on a minor military celebrity, whose detention would be relatively useful for blackmail and bargaining.
Third, there is the possibility that it may have something to do with high politics and factional infighting in Pyongyang. Excessive speculation regarding such murky matters serves no purpose, but there clearly must be those within the government who oppose the regime’s attempts to improve relations with Washington.
Fourth, it is also quite possible that the North Korean authorities intend to use Newman, as well as Bae (still in detention) as a negotiation tool. They might hope that a prominent American dignitary will come to Pyongyang to get these detainees back and will also bring to Pyongyang some news about U.S. willingness to make political concessions. This option does not appear to be politically likely in the current situation, but it cannot be completely ruled out. If Newman’s release is postponed until after Christmas, such a possibility will probably gain traction.
It is also of course possible that the arrest was done for internal propaganda purposes. It may have been seen as being a good idea to have an American war veteran reminding North Koreans about the unforgivable and unforgettable crimes of the bloodthirsty U.S. imperialists. The wave of patriotic enthusiasm that will fill the hearts of Kim’s loyal subjects when they see a war criminal brought to justice probably had something to do with all of this.
Whatever the reason, it seems that the affair was a significant mistake if judged from Pyongyang’s point of view. The gains are dubious and perhaps non-existent, while the losses are clear and easy to see.
Main picture: Lamp in the “Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum ” North Korea, by Eric Lafforgue
On November 30 North Korean TV broadcast footage of an old Western man who read a statement of apology. He admitted that as an American military officer during the Korean War he was responsible for training South Korea guerillas involved in killing civilians inside North Korea. He also admitted that during his recent trip to Pyongyang he was looking for some former guerillas and their family
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.