PALO ALTO, Calif. — The wife of an 85-year-old veteran detained in North Korea implored authorities on Friday to let her husband return to his anxious family and end what she called a “dreadful misunderstanding.”
“We have had no word on the state of his health, whether or not the medications sent to him through the Swedish Embassy in North Korea have been delivered or why he was detained,” Lee Newman said in a prepared statement released in California.
Meanwhile, North Korean officials told the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang that they were holding an American but did not confirm it was Newman, who was pulled from a plane on Oct. 26 while preparing to leave the communist nation after a 10-day tour.
The Swedish Embassy is negotiating on a daily basis on behalf of Newman because the U.S. has no diplomatic ties to North Korea, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington.
Until his planned departure, Newman’s trip had seemed positive, with postcards describing good times and knowledgeable guides, Lee Newman said in her statement.
“The family feels there has been some dreadful misunderstanding leading to his detention and asks that the (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) work to settle this issue quickly and to return this 85-year-old grandfather to his anxious, concerned family,” she said.
David Thompson at Juche Travel Services’ London office said in an email that Newman and his companion had booked a private tour through the agency, and arrangements were handled in North Korea through the Korea International Travel Co., the state-run tourism office.
“Mr. Newman had in place all necessary and valid travel documents to take his tour,” Thompson said.
Newman has been described as an inveterate traveler and long-retired finance executive. His son, Jeffrey Newman, said his father wanted to return to the country where he spent three years during the Korean War.
It’s unknown why he is being detained, but his father’s traveling companion Bob Hamrdla said Newman earlier had a “difficult” discussion with North Korean officials about his experiences during the war, according to Jeffrey Newman.
Hamrdla, who lives in the same 11-story Palo Alto retirement apartment building as the Newmans, has led more than 40 travel programs to Central Europe for Stanford University.
By agreement with the Newmans, Hamrdla declined an interview.
North Korea has detained at least six Americans since 2009, including two journalists accused of trespassing and several missionaries accused of spreading Christianity.
Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American missionary and tour operator, has been detained for more than a year.
Newman doesn’t fit the pattern of the other detained Americans.
In recent years, thousands of Americans have safely visited North Korea, including tourists, researchers, relief workers, professionals and many people who still have family in that country.
“In principle, travel from the U.S. to North Korea is possible and certainly not illegal, but the actual flow of people is influenced heavily by the state of relations between North Korea and the U.S. at any given time,” said Ramsay Liem, whose parents are from North Korea.
In a new film “Memory of Forgotten War,” Liem and his wife document the reunification of Korean Americans with their families in North Korea.
Some observers have speculated that Newman may have been mistaken for a Korean War Silver Star recipient also named Merrill Newman.
But Jeffrey Newman says there were no signs that was true. And in Oregon, the other Merrill Newman, 84, was mystified.
“I have no idea why this guy was detained and whether they had Googled — like anybody else can — the name and found me and thought this guy was me or whatever,” said the Beaverton, Ore.-based Merrill Newman.
Kim Dong-jil, a South Korean professor who is deputy director of Peking University’s Center for Korean Peninsular Studies, said a low profile by the U.S. government and media could lead to Newman’s quick release.
“The North Korean authorities know it would do no good to detain an elderly man for a long time because of human rights concerns,” he said.