SEOUL, South Korea – Six decades before he went to North Korea as a curious tourist, Merrill Newman supervised a group of South Korean guerrillas during the Korean War who were perhaps the most hated and feared fighters in the North, former members of the group say.
Some of those guerrillas, interviewed this week by The Associated Press, remember Newman as a handsome, thin American lieutenant who got them rice, clothes and weapons during the later stages of the 1950-53 war, but largely left the fighting to them.
North Korea apparently remembered him, too.
The 85-year-old war veteran has been detained in Pyongyang since being forced off a plane set to leave the country Oct. 26 after a 10-day trip. He appeared this weekend on North Korean state TV apologizing for alleged wartime crimes in what was widely seen as a coerced statement.
“Why did he go to North Korea?” asked Park Boo Seo, a former member of the Kuwol partisan unit, which 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.”
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 was scheduled to visit South Korea to meet former Kuwol fighters following 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 has yet to tell his side of the story, aside from the televised statement, and his family hasn’t 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’s detention is just the most recent point of tension on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea has detained another American for more than a year, and there’s still wariness in Seoul and Washington after North Korea’s springtime threats of nuclear war and vows to restart its nuclear fuel production.
According to his televised statement, Newman’s alleged crimes include training guerrillas whose attacks continued even after the war ended, and ordering operations that led to the death of dozens of North Korean soldiers and civilians. He also said in the statement he attempted to meet surviving Kuwol members.
Former guerrillas in Seoul said Newman served as an adviser for Kuwol, one of dozens of such partisan groups established by the U.S.-military during the Korean War. They have a book about the unit that Newman signed, praising Kuwol and writing that he was “proud to have served with you.” The book includes a photo of Newman that appears to be taken within the last 10-15 years.
But the guerrillas say most of the North’s charges were fabricated or exaggerated.
Newman oversaw guerrilla actions and gave the fighters advice, but he wasn’t involved in day-to-day operations, according to the former rank-and-file members and analysts. He also gave them rice, clothes and weapons from the U.S. military when they obtained key intelligence and captured North Korean and Chinese troops. All Kuwol guerrillas came to South Korea shortly after the war’s end and haven’t infiltrated the North since then, they say, so there are no surviving members in North Korea.
“The charges don’t make sense,” said Park, 80.
In the final months of the war, Newman largely stayed on a frontline island, living in a small wooden house, said Park Young, an 81-year-old former guerrilla.
“He ate alone and slept alone and lived alone,” said Park, one of 200 guerrillas stationed on the Island.
When the U.S. Eighth Army retreated from the Yalu River separating North Korea and China in late 1950, some 6,000 to 10,000 Koreans initially declared their willingness to fight for the United States, according to a U.S. Army research study on wartime partisan actions that was declassified in 1990.
The report says the U.S. Army provided training and direction to the partisans, who had some “measurable results.” But ultimately the campaigns “did not represent a significant contribution,” in part because of a lack of training and experience of Korean and U.S. personnel in guerrilla warfare.
Former Kuwol fighters claim to have killed 1,500 North Korean soldiers and captured 600 alive. About 1,270 Kuwol members perished during the war, according to surviving unit members.
The guerrillas aren’t alone in questioning Newman’s trip to North Korea.
“Newman was very naive to discuss his partisan background with the North Koreans,” Bruce Cumings, a history professor specializing in Korea at the University of Chicago, said in an email. “The South Korean partisans were possibly the most hated group of people in the North, except for out-and-out spies and traitors from their own side.”
But analyst Cho Sung-hun with the state-run Institute for Military History Compilation in Seoul said it’s “not weird” for war veterans to try to visit former battle grounds before they die.
Cho, who interviewed Newman in 2003 for a book on guerrilla warfare during the Korean War, described him as a “gentle American citizen” and said North Korea should not trigger a new source of tension with his detention.
Some analysts see Newman’s alleged confession as a prelude to his release, possibly allowing the North Koreans to send him home and save face without going through a lengthy legal proceeding.
North Korea has detained at least seven Americans since 2009 and five of them have been either released or deported. Korean-American missionary and tour operator Kenneth Bae has been held for more than year.
The Korean War is still an extremely sensitive topic in North Korea. It ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula still technically at war.
“It seems absurd from a public relations standpoint to arrest an 85-year-old man who came with goodwill,” Cumings said. “But the North Koreans are still fighting the Korean War and grasp every chance they get to remind Americans that the war has never ended.”
AP writers Eun-Young Jeong in Seoul, Matthew Pennington in Washington and Martha Mendoza in California contributed to this report.