North Korea

Pyongyang frees Merrill Newman, US Korean war veteran; Biden tours DMZ

Release of 85-year-old ahead of US vice-president's tour to demilitarised zone seen as a move by North to allow for dialogue with Washington

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 December, 2013, 10:10am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 December, 2013, 5:12am

North Korea yesterday released a detained American veteran of the Korean war ahead of a visit by US Vice-President Joe Biden to the world's last cold war frontier.

US officials said Merrill Newman, an 85-year-old from California, headed home after arriving in Beijing.

North Korea deported him "from a humanitarian viewpoint", its official Korean Central News Agency said, citing his "sincere repentance" as well as his age and health. His release came hours before Biden visited the demilitarised zone which has split the Korean peninsula since the 1950-1953 war.

"The DPRK [North Korea] today released someone they should never have had in the first place Mr. Newman," Biden said. "It's a positive thing they've done."

Biden is visiting South Korea as the last stop on a three-country Asia tour that has already taken him to Japan and China.

Biden also urged Pyongyang to free another US citizen, Kenneth Bae, a 45-year-old tour operator who was arrested a year ago and sentenced to 15 years' hard labour on charges of seeking to topple the government.

Newman, who has a heart condition, was plucked off a plane in October as he was leaving Pyongyang following a tourist visit.

His family said he was detained on October 26 shortly before take-off from the North Korean capital.

Biden's office said the vice- president had spoken to him by telephone.

"I offered him a ride home on Air Force Two, but as he pointed out, there's a direct flight to San Francisco, so I don't blame him, I'd be on that flight too," Biden said. Newman said at Beijing airport he was "very glad to be on my way home" and was looking forward to seeing his wife, according to the South's Yonhap news agency.

Dongguk University professor Kim Yong-Hyun, a North Korea expert in Seoul, said that Pyongyang had freed Newman in a bid to facilitate dialogue with Washington.

"North Korea knows that the detention of a sick, old man will aggravate relations with the United States," Kim said.

Last week, Pyongyang for the first time officially admitted holding Newman, saying he was detained for "hostile acts" after entering the country "under the guise of a tourist".

North Korea had accused him of committing crimes both as a tourist and during his participation in the Korean war six decades ago.

The North also claimed that Newman masterminded espionage and subversive activities during the war and was involved in the killing of North Korean soldiers and innocent civilians.