American heads for freedom, 'deported' from North Korea


by Greg Botelho and Ben Brumfield, CNN


Posted on December 7, 2013 at 9:34 AM

Updated Saturday, Dec 7 at 7:59 PM

(CNN) -- Merrill Newman -- the 85-year-old American detained by North Korean authorities earlier this fall -- is on a flight back to freedom after being locked up in North Korea.

The communist country "deported" the veteran of the Korean war, North Korea's state news agency KCNA reported early Saturday. It coincided with a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to South Korea, where he laid a wreath in honor of those who fell in the war that pitted North against South.

A senior administration official said that Newman's release was the result of direct contact between Washington and Pyongyang. The official said the North Koreans called to tell the Obama administration they were releasing Newman without explaining their decision.

Newman's son announced that he is on his way home to the United States. Neighbors have tied yellow ribbons around spots in his neighborhood in Palo Alto, California, to welcome him.

"We are absolutely delighted to confirm that Merrill Newman is on his way home after being released by the DPRK," Jeff Newman said.

"This has been a very difficult ordeal for us as a family and particularly for him," the son said, who plans to meet Newman, when he disembarks in San Francisco.

Jeff Newman also called for the release of Kenneth Bae, another American being held in North Korea.

A senior Obama administration official said soon after the North Korean announcement that U.S. authorities have Newman "in hand." Video showed him smiling as he walked past a cavalcade of reporters through the airport in Beijing, China.

"I'm very glad to be on my way home," Newman told reporters. "And I appreciate the tolerance the DPRK government has given to me to be on my way."

He felt good, he said, and looked forward to seeing his wife.

The KCNA report stated that investigators determined that "Newman entered the DPRK with a wrong understanding of it and perpetrated a hostile act against it."

"Taking into consideration his admittance of the act committed by him on the basis of his wrong understanding (and the) apology made by him for it, his sincere repentance of it and his advanced age and health condition, the above-said institution deported him from the country from a humanitarian viewpoint," the official North Korean report added.

Let Bae free

The State Department welcomed Merrill's release but also repeated its call for the DPRK to pardon Bae and release him, too. The senior administration official said the United States is now paying full-time attention to getting Bae released.

Biden told reporters in South Korea that he "played no direct role" in the release. He added that his office offered to let Newman fly home with him on Air Force Two, but State Department officials said he'd take a direct commercial flight to San Francisco.

"It's a positive thing they've done," said the Vice President, who talked Saturday morning by phone with Newman. "But they still have Mr. Bae, who has no reason being held in the North (and) should be released immediately."

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has undertaken private diplomatic efforts with North Korea seemed more perturbed over the Americans' detentions than he was pleased at Newman's release.

"While the release of Merrill Newman is welcome news indeed, he never should have been detained in the first place. The North Koreans should also release Kenneth Bae as a humanitarian gesture," Richardson said in a statement.

Old resentments

Newman had traveled as a tourist to North Korea on a 10-day organized private tour of North Korea in October. From phone calls and postcards he sent, the trip was going well and there was no indication of any kind of problem, Jeff Newman said.

The day before he was to leave, "one or two Korean authorities" met with Newman and his tour guide, the son added. They talked about Newman's service record, which left "my dad ... a bit bothered," according to Jeff Newman.

Then, just minutes before his Beijing-bound plane was set to depart Pyongyang in late October, he was taken off the aircraft by North Korean authorities.

For weeks, the Pyongyang government didn't explain why they were holding Newman.

An explanation came a few days ago, when state media published and broadcast what they described as the Korean War veteran's "apology." The word was written atop the first of four handwritten pages detailing his alleged indiscretions.

In the note -- which was dated November 9 -- Newman talked about his having advised the Kuwol Unit, part of the "intelligence bureau" fighting against Pyongyang during the Korean War. He detailed how he commanded troops to collect "information" and wage various deadly attacks.

"After I killed so many civilians and (North Korean) soldiers and destroyed strategic objects in the DPRK during the Korean War, I committed indelible offensive acts against the DPRK government and Korean people," Newman said, according to that KCNA report.

The reported message also touched on his return 60 years later to North Korea, admitting that he "shamelessly ... had a plan to meet any surviving soldiers and pray for the souls of the dead soldiers."

His statement ended: "If I go back to (the) USA, I will tell the true features of the DPRK and the life the Korean people are leading."

"Hostile acts"

This public apology was "highly scripted political theater," said University of California, Berkeley, professor Steve Weber. Some feared Newman could face harsh treatment.

The other American, Bae, was arrested in November 2012 and sentenced in May to 15 years of hard labor after North Korea's government found him guilty of "hostile acts" and attempts to topple the government.

Pyongyang is regarded by many as one of the world's most repressive states, with its insularity, system of cruel detention camps for political prisoners and sharp restrictions on speech and other freedoms.

Its isolation is exacerbated by widespread uproar over its nuclear program. The East Asian nation's reported quest to create a nuclear weapon, as well as its resistance to international monitoring of its activities, have resulted in economic sanctions, compounding difficulties in getting enough energy and food for its people.

Merrill's release may serve to relax tensions with the United States.

But above all, it will please his wife, Lee, who last month told CNN, "We need to have Merrill back at the head of the table for the holidays."