On October 26, 2013 – Merrill Newman – a former U.S. soldier who served in the Korean War was arrested by North Korean authorities as he attempted to leave the country at the end of a week-long tourist trip.
After a period of two months and extensive efforts by the U.S. Department of State, his family and former U.S. officials, Newman – who was 85 at the time – was released by North Korean authorities in a “humanitarian” gesture on December 7.
In 2014, Newman spoke about his detention in an incredibly detailed account compiled by former CNN correspondent Mike Chinoy in a short e-book called “The Last P.O.W.”
Now, nearly three years on, Newman still lives in Palo Alto, California, and spoke to NK News about his thoughts during his detention, his release and his views on North Korea and tourism to the country.
GETTING HOME AND GETTING ON WITH IT
Following his release from custody, Newman made his way back to the United States from Pyongyang via Beijing, first landing in San Francisco.
He traveled via a commercial airline in business class, after declining an offer from then-Vice President Joe Biden, who was in Seoul at the time of Newman’s release, to travel with him via Air Force Two.
Newman, after being picked up at the airport in Beijing by five State Department officials, was put on the phone with Biden himself.
“Somehow this had all been arranged, obviously, and he said ‘I’m in Seoul, do you want to take the plane with me back on Air Force Two?’,” Newman recalls, speaking to NK News over the phone.
“I said ‘Well, where are you going?’ He said ‘I’m going to Washington.’ I said, ‘I really want to go to San Francisco, thanks very much.’ So that’s how that happened. But he was quite nice about it.”
Newman, understandably, was eager to get back home as soon as possible.
After touching down in San Francisco, Newman was reunited with his family in a private section of the airport. After this “very nice welcoming,” Newman and his friends and family moved through a media scrum into a car and drove out of the spotlight.
Newman’s “apology” in North Korea
Rather than returning immediately to Palo Alto, they went to a house they owned in Santa Cruz to avoid the press who were assumed to be waiting outside the retirement community he resides in – as they were throughout Newman’s detention.
“They weren’t there so that gave us a break,” he says, saying that the media pressure on his family during his detention was “constant.”
Newman could be forgiven for wanting a break after managing the stress of being holed up in the Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang for over a month.
“Most of the time I was pretty positive. I knew they were not going to hold me forever, there is no reason for them to do this,” Newman says.
“Every once in a while though, when they were really almost vicious in their accusations, you would feel down.”
Part of his strategy to stay positive was to tell himself that he would be released on certain dates that he could see on the Western calendar he had in the hotel room where he was detained.
“I could see we were in October, then I went to November and I thought ‘I will be out of here by Thanksgiving’, and then Thanksgiving came closer and closer and pretty soon I realized I was not going to be out by Thanksgiving.”
“That was a low point and then I was like, ‘at least I will be home by Christmas.’ That was the way I was being positive about it.”
“I was able to, in some ways, argue with them – you can’t get into a fist fight with them but I wouldn’t always take what they said without arguing”
Newman also kept his mind occupied by reading and re-reading sections of novels he had stored on his Kindle, which had initially been confiscated but was subsequently returned to him after some technical issues and arguments with his captors.
“They took it, then tried to use it and couldn’t make it work and they said ‘we will give it to somebody to fix it.’ I said ‘just give it back to me, you’ve broken it. Go away, leave it, give it to me’. So they did,” he says.
“So I would read a little bit of each one (book), then skip and go to another one, try not to remember it so when I started again the next day, it was still fresh,” Newman says, laughing at his strategy to allay boredom.
Some of the e-books on his Kindle were related to North Korea, one was a book by Dr. Andrei Lankov, though he did not read DPRK focused content during his time in Pyongyang, he says. The North Koreans had strictly objected to the e-books and had unsuccessfully tried to delete the content on his Kindle.
Even though his interrogators were forceful at times, the incident over the Kindle wasn’t the first time Newman argued with his captors.
“I was able to, in some ways, argue with them – you can’t get into a fist fight with them but I wouldn’t always take what they said without arguing,” he says. “That was something I would do when it seemed like they were trying to put words in my mouth or [they were] simply completely wrong.”
Newman also struck up something of a friendship with the doctor who carried out his daily health checks.
“One of the things that was interesting was this doctor who was my only friend. When I first met her she had a name tag on her medical smock and it was in English and in Korean,” Newman says.
“The other thing was she had a real Rolex watch and I made some comment about that and she said ‘is this a good watch?’, I said ‘it is a really really good watch, very valuable’. I never saw it again.”
Newman also says that he tried to make sure he recalled her name after she had stopped wearing her identification tag.
“She said ‘when you are released I will give you my name’. But of course the process was so quick, I never saw her that day.”
Newman saw the doctor so regularly as he had a heart condition: a problem that American negotiators used as a bargaining chip with the North Koreans.
Should his health deteriorate during his detention, they told Pyongyang, North Korea’s image would suffer – a strategy Newman says he was “pretty happy” about.
Despite keeping positive and trying to distract himself, one aspect of his detention that continually caused Newman stress was the knowledge that his wife, Lee Newman, may be struggling with his absence.
In “The Last P.O.W.”, Chinoy details how Newman would repeatedly tell the North Korean minders that he needed to get back home and look after his wife.
While the break in Santa Cruz after his release was something Newman certainly needed, it was clear to him that his detention had taken more of a toll on his family than on him.
“For me, it was pretty easy. I think the problem was and still is, my wife was much more affected by it than I. It was much harder for her than me,” he says.
“I knew where I was and I knew I would be okay, but she had no idea. So that took a while.”
While eager to settle into normalcy again, Newman still had to tick some administrative boxes, following his detention.
“Somebody from the State Department visited and we had an entire day of debriefing,” Newman says, adding that the individual had apparently been in charge of debriefing everybody who had been detained and released by Pyongyang over the last five years prior.
“For me it was pretty easy. I think the problem was and still is, my wife was much more affected by it than I”
“It was really in-depth. Besides how they treat you, they ask you ‘what was the process, who was there, how was your day by day, hour by hour’… we spent a full day on this.”
“It was from 9 o’clock in the morning, then my wife brought in lunch and we just set a table and worked away all day. It was comfortable, looking out of the ocean, sitting there on a nice sunny day, so it was an easy debrief.”
Much easier, he says, than the experiences he had with officials in Pyongyang.
After that, save for some brief communication over an outstanding bill, the North Koreans charged Newman for his ‘stay’ in the DPRK, he had no significant follow-ups and was able to get on with his life and make up for lost time with his family.
BLAME THE TOURIST, NOT THE COMPANY
While he did not have further significant interactions with the State Department after his debrief, or North Korean representatives for that matter, Newman did have brief contact with Juche Travel Services, the UK-based tour company he traveled to North Korea with.
“There was one email exchange – I can’t now remember the detail behind it, but it was sort of ‘we are sorry this worked out that way’,” he says.
Looking back on the events that led to his arrest in late 2013, Newman says that he holds no grudge towards the tour company that took him: “I certainly don’t blame them.”
Newman’s troubles in North Korea arose due to his military background, which involved the training of pro-South North Korean militias to infiltrate the DPRK during the Korean War.
He believes the travel company and the North Koreans were aware of his background, but that his service only became an issue for his hosts after he and his travel companion discussed his history in more detail.
This conversation took place in a minivan, with one guide sitting up front and another in the seat behind Newman.
The North Korean tour guides were listening in on their conversations and reported it to their superiors, especially after Newman asked about possibly meeting war veterans from the Mt. Kuwol area, where the militia groups he trained had previously operated.
“It seems to me that the more likely thing is that the guide behind me was paying really close attention and that was passed on to people who had a lot of background or were able to get a lot of background and that’s how the whole thing evolved,” he hypothesizes.
Tour companies generally provide briefings for their clients warning them that certain activities, conversations and items should not be had while in-country.
“I think if you’re going to warn people, it’s to be very careful about what you say when the guides are around.”
Despite these briefings and the knowledge of risk, some people have found themselves in trouble, and multiple U.S. citizens have been arrested for pranks, religious activities and in one special case, tearing up their visa and requesting asylum.
As for the question of whether tour companies could provide more protection for their clients, Newman believes there is little more they can do and that it is essentially up to the individual traveler to behave themselves.
Newman himself takes responsibility for his detention, admitting he should have been more careful in what he was discussing and that he did not fully grasp that the North Koreans were still very much concerned with aspects of the war in the 1950’s, despite the signing of the armistice in 1953.
There may, however, be one useful addition to the warnings that tour companies highlight, Newman advises.
“I think if you’re going to warn people, it’s to be very careful about what you say when the guides are around.”
Newman, while not attributing fault to tour companies but to the individual travelers themselves, is far from an advocate for travel to North Korea.
“You can make your own decisions but you’d probably be making a mistake,” he says of anyone looking to travel to North Korea, especially if they have a “sensitive” background as he did.
The U.S. State Department warns U.S. citizens not to go to North Korea in this vein and upgraded its policy stance towards this issue as a result of Newman’s arrest.
“The warning, particularly now, is very clear. I don’t know what you could say that is more clear.”
STILL KEEPING TRACK
Since his experience in late 2013, Newman’s interest in North Korean issues has spiked.
“I had an interest before, but certainly my experience three years ago increased that, so I’m much more attuned, trying to stay current,” he says.
“For fifty years I was a casual observer. I paid attention – I read articles and things like that – but now I feel more in tune.”
With tensions on the peninsula increasing and North Korea having made significant progress in realizing its nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions since 2013, Newman is watching the situation unfold, perhaps with increased frustration as well as interest.
“I don’t pretend to have a solution but I don’t think anybody else is working towards one either that I can see”
“The real question is how do you ever get out of this?,” he asks, referring to the cycle of tensions between the U.S. and North Korea.
“What I would do if I was in charge of Washington is I would try to engage. I don’t see any inclination for that, and I haven’t seen any in a long time… and I think that is a real tragedy.”
“Isolation has worked for DPRK for a long time, but for a very substantial number of people, it is working less and less. And that changes things… that is an agent for change, so you can be optimistic,” he adds, speaking in part about the increased access to external information North Koreans are experiencing via sources beyond their borders.
While optimistic about potential changes, Newman isn’t looking to a calendar – as he did in his Yanggakdo Hotel room – expecting a resolution any time soon.
“I think it is a very complex problem and I don’t pretend to have a solution, but I don’t think anybody else is working towards one either that I can see,” he says.
“I would like to see something resolved, but I don’t hold my breath.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA, edited by NK News
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