DMZ, South Korea — An elderly U.S. veteran of the Korean War arrived home Saturday after being released by North Korea, where he had traveled as a tourist and was held for six weeks as a prisoner.
“I’m delighted to be home,” Merrill Newman said at the San Francisco airport, where he was reunited with his wife and son, the Associated Press reported. “It’s been a great homecoming. I’m tired, but ready to be with my family.”
He also thanked the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang and the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for helping to secure his release, the AP said. He had earlier told reporters in Beijing, his stopover point, that he felt “good” and wanted to see his wife.
Newman, 85, traveled to Pyongyang in October on a 10-day private tour but was removed from a plane by North Korean authorities just before returning home. The North last week accused Newman of a long list of “indelible crimes” committed during the war six decades ago and released a videotaped confession in which Newman read an awkwardly written four-page apology.
Newman’s release, announced in a three-paragraph bulletin from the North’s state-run news agency, marked an abrupt end to an episode that prompted the United States to issue a blanket warning against tourist travel to the secretive authoritarian state. North Korea said it had released Newman after taking into account his sincere apology and his “advanced age and health condition.”
Newman, who lives in a Palo Alto, Calif., retirement home, had served during the Korean War and supervised a group of South Korean guerrillas that carried out some of the conflict’s most dangerous and damaging missions. Although Newman traveled back to the North in October with a valid tourist visa, and in the company of a friend from his retirement community, some analysts say it was a risky decision. The North often cites Washington’s wartime “imperialist” behavior as the basis for its modern-day military buildup.
Newman’s son, Jeffrey, told reporters outside his home in Pasadena that the detention had been a “very difficult ordeal for us as a family, and particularly for him,” according to The Associated Press.
Vice President Biden, laying a wreath at a war memorial in Seoul, said he had spoken briefly with Newman by phone.
“There is a piece of good news. The DPRK today released someone they should never have had in the first place: Mr. Newman,” Biden said.
“I’m told we tried to get in contact with him [but] he’s on his way or in China right now. I offered him a ride home on Air Force Two, but as he pointed out, there’s a direct flight to San Francisco, his home. I don’t blame him. I’d be on that flight too. It’s a positive thing they’ve done.”
Biden said the United States would continue to demand the release of another American, Kenneth Bae, who has been held for more than a year. Including Newman, North Korea has detained at least seven Americans since 2009, six of whom have been released.
“At least there’s one ray of sunshine today. Mr. Newman will be reunited with his family,” he said.
Biden, in aviator sunglasses and a brown leather bomber jacket, arrived by helicopter to a landing zone near the DMZ and was escorted by military officials to a lookout post at Observation Post Ouellette. The observatory is about 25 meters from the border. His granddaughter Finnegan accompanied him. “Welcome to the end of the world,” a U.S. soldier said.
A Korean soldier told the Vice President about the post and Biden was handed binoculars to peer into North Korea.
He later addressed U.S. and Korean troops briefly.
During Biden’s trip, which also included stops in Japan and China, he and his aides have discussed North Korea’s nuclear program with leaders of all three countries. Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping spent much of their 5 1/2 hours of bilateral meetings discussing North Korea, officials said.
In a speech at Yonsei University in Seoul on Friday, Biden warned that “North Korea needs to understand they cannot return to the old pattern of seeking rewards for bad behavior.”
“Let there be no doubt that the United States of America is committed to doing what it takes to defend our allies and ourselves from North Korea aggression. Period,” Biden said.