An 85-year-old U.S. veteran detained in North Korea for more than a month on accusations of running a spy network set up during the decades-old Korean War returned home today, declining to answer questions about his ordeal.
“It’s been a great homecoming, and I’m tired, but I’m ready to be with my family now, and thank you all for the support we got,” Merrill E. Newman told reporters after arriving in San Francisco on a flight from Beijing that originated in Pyongyang.
Newman entered North Korea “under the guise of a tourist to confirm the whereabouts of the spies and terrorists who had been trained and dispatched by him, an intelligence officer, during the last Korean War,” the official Korean Central News Agency reported today, referring to the conflict that ended in 1953. He was released on humanitarian grounds after admitting to his crimes, KCNA said.
“It’s a positive thing they’ve done,” U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said in Seoul, where he was on the last day of a three-country Asian visit. Biden offered Newman, who traveled to China after his release, a lift back to the U.S. on Air Force 2. Newman declined the ride, preferring to take a commercial flight that left sooner.
Biden was in South Korea amid rising tensions in the region over China unilaterally declaring a new air defense zone and North Korea’s growing nuclear threat. China’s move wouldn’t affect U.S. military operations in the region and the U.S. would “not accept or tolerate” a nuclear-armed North Korea, he said after meeting South Korean President Park Geun Hye yesterday.
The North has periodically detained Americans, sometimes bartering their release for concessions from the U.S. Newman was removed from his plane as it was about to take off from Pyongyang for his return flight on Oct. 26 after he spent 10 days touring North Korea. His wife and son in California had been publicly campaigning on his behalf. Biden said he “played no direct” role in Newman’s release.
The release prompted Biden to call for North Korea to free Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American missionary and tour guide who has been held for more than a year on charges of committing hostile acts. Bae was sentenced to 15 years hard labor after a trial on April 30. He first worked in the fields at a labor camp until he was moved to a hospital sometime in August because of deteriorating health.
“Mr. Bae, who has no reason being held in the North, should be released immediately,” Biden said. “We’re going to continue to demand his release as well.”
North and South Korea remain divided along one of the world’s most fortified borders 60 years after the Korean War ended in a stalemate. More than 28,000 U.S. troops remain in the South to defend against the North, which conducted its third nuclear test in February. Biden was due to visit the demilitarized zone separating the two countries before returning to the U.S.
He laid a wreath at the War Memorial of Korea and said he recognized the names of some U.S. service members that were inscribed on a monument at the site.
“It brings home how real and necessary our continued presence here is,” Biden said.