Why did North Korea arrest an 85-year-old American? Here are four possible reasons

November 22, 2013

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

Nearly four weeks after North Korea arrested an 85-year-old American retiree who was visiting the country as a tourist -- an arrest disclosed only a few days ago -- the world still has no idea why. North Korea has issued no public statements about Merrill Newman, who was sitting on his plane set to depart Pyongyang when a North Korean policeman came on board to remove him. The United States has issued its first-ever blanket warning against all travel to the country but otherwise made no public response.

Hundreds of American tourists visit North Korea every year on highly regulated tours, almost always without incident. Although several Americans have been arrested there in the past, virtually all of them had either entered illegally or crossed one of the government's ultra-clear red lines, such as by smuggling in politically sensitive religious materials. There is nothing in Newman's record to suggest any history of provocative political advocacy or Christian evangelizing. It is, thus, a total mystery as to why Newman was thrust into detention and has been held for so long.

Naturally, though, there are theories. Here are the four leading ones being floated by seasoned North Korea-watchers. They're worth scanning, both to get a sense of the experts' conversations about this baffling incident and to show that, at this point, we really don't have a clue why it happened.

Theory 1: North Korean authorities mistook him for another Merrill Newman.

The man whom North Korean authorities arrested is a Korean War veteran named Merrill E. Newman. But Reuters reporters James Pearson and Alex Dobuzinskis point out that there's also a famous-ish Korean War veteran named Merrill H. Newman, who was awarded the Silver Star for bravery in combat. They point out that North Korean authorities always run background checks on visiting Westerners, but those checks can be no more elaborate than a Web search. Maybe the North Koreans thought they had war hero Merrill H. Newman visiting and so arrested him as a high-profile political asset.

Reason to believe it: When all other theories fail, official incompetence tends to be a surprisingly frequent answer to mystery cases like this one.

Reason to be skeptical: Korean War Veterans visit North Korea all the time, often to repatriate the remains of fallen American comrades. Some of Newman's veteran buddies at his retirement home had visited this past July and had no problems. I'm not convinced that the "other" Merrill Newman would be a target for arrest just because of his war record.

Theory 2: Newman accidentally crossed some government red line.

Westerners can visit North Korea only on highly orchestrated tours run by government-approved tour agencies. The tours tend to be expensive, and tourism has been rising, which has caused the once-tiny field of tourism companies visiting North Korea to expand significantly. NKNews.org reports that Newman traveled with one of the smaller and perhaps less established companies: the Britain-based Juche Travel Services. It was also a private tour; Newman traveled with only a friend and two North Korean government minders.

NKNews's Chad O'Carroll explains that small private tours "inherently carry increased risk for visitors, lacking the protection of accompanying Western guides." It is certainly feasible that the 85-year-old Newman might have unknowingly crossed some red line, whether by wandering away from his government minders or even saying something he shouldn't have. Newman's son later told reporters that his father had had a "difficult" discussion with his minders about the Korean War.

Reason to believe it: This is North Korea, a place where arresting people for their political opinions is part of the daily routine. U.S. tourism to the country has been expanding rapidly; it's certainly possible that a well-meaning but unguided American could get in over his head.

Reason to be skeptical: 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, who are selected for their ability to deal with Westerners. Stories of tourists saying knuckle-headed or provocative things to their minders are common.

Theory 3: North Korea just wanted a new hostage to use as a bargaining chip.

The country has a pretty long history of seizing Westerners and holding them essentially as hostages until they secure some concession from the United States, typically a visit by a high-level political official or retired president that Pyongyang can spin into domestic propaganda. Perhaps Pyongyang just wanted a new hostage and picked Newman more or less at random, making the elderly veteran little more than collateral damage.

Reason to believe it: North Korea has held Korean American Kenneth Bae for a year; Bae had reportedly planned to disseminate evangelical materials as part of a plan to transform or perhaps topple the government. But Pyongyang hasn't been able to use Bae to win any U.S. concessions. Maybe the authorities wanted to up the ante by grabbing Newman as well, which would be a much more significant jab at Washington because Newman did not appear to knowingly cross any glaring red lines, as Bae did.

Reason to be skeptical: For all North Korea's apparently wild behavior, there is a consistent and articulable logic to its provocations. Taking hostages serves North Korean interests, but so does the burgeoning tourism industry,  an important source of hard currency. This is why North Korea tends to arrest only people who cross big red lines, like Bae, allowing most tourists to feel safe visiting. Grabbing a largely innocent Newman would put the tourism business at risk, the kind of self-defeating move that Pyongyang generally avoids.

Theory 4: Newman crossed some unknown, more serious line.

Perhaps Newman committed some larger taboo, such as openly preaching Christianity to North Koreans or attempting to cause serious political trouble.

Reason to believe it: This would be consistent with almost all other North Korean detentions of Westerners.

Reason to be skeptical: There is absolutely nothing in Newman's record, as it has been publicly revealed, to suggest that he would do this. It is very difficult to imagine an 85-year-old retiree with no known history of such activities suddenly becoming a political or religious subversive.

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Max Fisher | November 21, 2013