Washington (AFP) – The United States called for the “immediate release” of Merrill Newman, an elderly Californian detained in North Korea for alleged “hostile acts” against the reclusive, communist country.
The 85-year-old grandfather with heart problems was plucked off a plane last month as he was leaving Pyongyang following a tourist visit.
“Given Mr. Newman’s advanced age and health conditions, we urge the (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) to release Mr. Newman so he may return home and reunite with his family,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said on Saturday.
In addition to calling for Newman’s “immediate release,” Hayden also urged Pyongyang to free another American, Kenneth Bae.
The 45-year-old tour operator was arrested a year ago and sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor on charges of seeking to topple the government.
“We continue to urge the DPRK authorities to grant him amnesty and immediate release,” Hayden said. “We remain deeply concerned about the welfare of the U.S. citizens held in custody in the DPRK.”
The State Department said the Swedish embassy, acting on Washington’s behalf since the United States has no formal ties with North Korea, was given “consular access” to Newman on Saturday.
Earlier, Pyongyang for the first time officially admitted holding the Korean War veteran, saying he was detained for “hostile acts” after entering the country “under the guise of a tourist.”
The official KCNA news agency claimed Newman had committed crimes both as a visitor and during his participation in the Korean War six decades ago, adding he had issued an apology confessing to his alleged crimes.
Authorities also released video and photos showing Newman — dressed in a button-down blue shirt and light, wrinkled trousers — reading the so-called apology, which was dated November 9 and ran to nearly 600 words. Parts of it were in poor English.
The retired financial executive has been accused of infringing upon the “dignity and sovereignty” of the secretive state and “slandering its socialist system, quite contrary to the purpose of the tour,” the KCNA report said.
The American had also masterminded espionage and subversive activities during the 1950-53 Korean War and was involved in the killing of local soldiers and innocent civilians, it added.
“I realize that I cannot be forgiven for my offensives but I beg for pardon on my knees by apologizing for my offensives sincerely toward the [North Korean] government and the Korean people and I want not punish me,” KCNA quoted Newman as saying.
He had intended to meet surviving soldiers and pray for the souls of the dead, KCNA said, adding he had asked his tour guide for help.
He had also criticized North Korea during his trip, it claimed.
The State Department said it had seen the KCNA report which said Newman apologized for the “misunderstanding” that led to his apprehension.
However, it said it had “no other information regarding the reason for his detention.”
“At this time, the department recommends against all travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea,” it said, while echoing Hayden’s calls for both Newman’s and Bae’s release.
Newman’s wife Lee has said her husband of 56 years was detained on October 26 shortly before takeoff in Pyongyang.
He had just completed a 10-day tour of the country, “a trip he had looked forward to making for a long while,” she added in a recent statement issued by the retirement complex in Palo Alto, near San Francisco, where the two live.
Lee has said her husband takes medication for heart problems and that the family had sent drugs in the hopes it would get to him.
Experts said Pyongyang may have issued the apology to accelerate judicial steps against Newman and resolve his case through dialogue.
“North Korea wants negotiations with the United States on his release,” Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, told AFP.
The autocratic regime has in the past freed detained Americans after visits from high-level emissaries.