Everything we know about Merrill Newman, the 85-year-old American imprisoned in North Korea

November 21, 2013

Merrill Newman in a photo taken in Palo Alto, Calif., in 2005. (Nicholas Wright/Reuters/Palo Alto Weekly)

Merrill Newman, an 85-year-old American who lives in California, has been detained in North Korea since Oct. 26, multiple news reports now confirm. Several hundred Americans are thought to visit North Korea every year as tourists, typically safely. Newman's arrest is highly unusual and remains shrouded in mystery. Here is the publicly available information on Newman so far, taken from accounts in NKNews.org, the San Jose Mercury News, New York Times and Associated Press.

The nine facts listed here only deepen the mystery; there is a total absence of any hint of a reason why he would have been arrested.

1. Newman was visiting North Korea on a nine-day tourist visa, traveling with a friend from his retirement community named Bob Hamrdla and two tour guides. Such guides also function as government minders.

2. He was arrested while sitting on an airplane at Pyongyang's international airport, waiting to depart the country. A single uniformed officer boarded the plane and walked Newman off.

3. Authorities have held him for more than three weeks, but North Korean state media have not mentioned the case.

4. A Korean War veteran, Newman with his wife lives in a Palo Alto retirement community called Channing House. He is Caucasian, which is significant given that North Korea has tended in the past to arrest only Westerners of Korean or other Asian descent. Korean War veterans sometimes travel to North Korea, usually without incident. A group went in July to repatriate the remains of an American who'd died there during the war. They say the trip went fine.

5. Newman does not appear to be overtly political or to have a known record of human rights activism or religious evangelizing, the two practices that have gotten Americans detained by North Korean authorities. He is a retired technology executive with a master's degree in education from Stanford. He'd reportedly taken Korean-language lessons to prepare for the trip.

6. It's not clear which travel agency he was traveling with. A growing number of Beijing-based agencies have been cropping up that take Americans into North Korea.

7. Newman's son said his father had a "difficult" discussion with his government minders about the Korean War. While political statements are obviously frowned upon by North Korea, the country has been hosting thousands of Western tourists for years. Newman would be far from the first Western visitor to raise sensitive political issues with his minders.

8. His son says he has a heart condition and a bad back. North Korea expert David Straub told NKNews.org, "The basic fact of the matter is that this gentleman is 84-85 yrs old, an elderly man, presumably not a threat in any way to North Korea, so this is, even by North Korean standards, an extraordinary thing."

9. The State Department issued a blanket warning Monday against all travel to North Korea, the first of this level of severity since Americans began traveling there in 1995. A State Department spokesperson emphasized that the official warning cites a "chronic" threat to Americans of arbitrary detention. Two other Americans have been arrested in recent years, both of Korean descent and accused of conducting illegal Christian missionary work.

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Max Fisher · November 20, 2013