SEOUL — An 85-year-old U.S. veteran being held in North Korea spent his war years there in one of the Army’s first Special Forces units, helping a clandestine group of Korean partisans who were fighting and spying well behind enemy lines.
Now South Koreans who served with Merrill Newman, who is beginning his sixth week in detention, say their unit was perhaps the most hated and feared by the North and his association with them may be the reason he is being held.
“Why did he go to North Korea?” asked Park Boo Seo, a former member of a unit, known in Korea as Kuwol, that is still loathed in Pyongyang and glorified in Seoul for the damage it inflicted on the North during the war. “The North Koreans still gnash their teeth at the Kuwol unit.”
Some of those guerrillas, interviewed this week, remember Newman as a handsome, thin American lieutenant who got them rice, clothes and weapons during the later stages of the 1950-1953 war but largely left the fighting to them.
Newman was scheduled to visit South Korea to meet with former Kuwol fighters after his North Korea trip. Park said about 30 elderly former guerrillas, some carrying bouquets of flowers, waited in vain for several hours for him at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, on Oct. 27 before news of his detention was released.
Newman appeared over the weekend on North Korean state TV apologizing for alleged wartime crimes in what was widely seen as a coerced statement.
Park and several other former guerrillas said they recognized Newman from his past visits to Seoul in 2003 and 2010 — when they ate raw fish and drank soju, Korean liquor — and from the TV footage, which was also broadcast in South Korea.
Newman’s family has not been in touch with him, but he was visited at a Pyongyang hotel by the Swedish ambassador, his family said in a statement, and he appeared to be in good health, receiving his heart medicine and being checked by medical personnel.
His family has not responded to requests for comment on his wartime activities. Jeffrey Newman has previously said that his father, an avid traveler and retired finance executive from California, had always wanted to return to the country where he fought during the Korean War.
Newman served in the Army’s 8240th unit, also known as the White Tigers, whose missions remained classified until the 1990s. His military records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show he served on active duty from September 1950 to October 1953, much of it in Korea, then was a reservist for nearly four years.
The records show Newman had reached the rank of first lieutenant when discharged and had received several medals, including a Korean Service Medal with two bronze service stars.
After attending officer candidate school, documents show, he quickly rose from platoon leader to executive officer, then company commander. He is also listed as completing an infiltration course. In 1953, he was sent to study at military intelligence school before returning as an infantry unit commander. He was qualified in various weapons including 75mm rifles and carbines.
Ben Malcom, a retired colonel, said he served in Newman’s unit during a different period and did not know him. But he later wrote a book about the unit’s work, detailing how the United States supplied weapons, ammunition, food and American advisers to an anti-communist guerrilla force in North Korea.
Malcom said his openness about the unit’s work during the war, including a book, a documentary on the History channel and many interviews, would preclude him from even considering visiting North Korea.
“I would never go back to North Korea,” he said. “They know me.”
The former guerrillas in Seoul also said that Newman served as an adviser but that most of the North’s charges were fabricated or exaggerated. They have a book that includes a photo of Newman and his signature by the words “Proud to have served with you.”
“The charges don’t make sense,” said Park, 80.