A Northern California man who took a trip to North Korea has been detained in the country, leading the U.S. State Department to release a warning against traveling into Pyongyang.
85-year-old Korean War vet Merrill Newman, was removed from a plane at Sunan International Airport in the North's capital city on Oct. 26. According to a family friend who spoke with the Los Angeles Times, the retired financial executive was on his way out of North Korea when he was pulled from the flight and held there. Since that day, no one has heard of his whereabouts.
At first, the family chose to keep the disappearance under wraps. But once the State Department released its secretive message to stay out of the North, Newman's next-of-kin became suspicious. The message didn't mention the Palo Alto residen'ts name, but said that the department had gotten word of "authorities arbitrarily detaining U.S. citizens and not allowing them to leave the country."
According to the LA Times, this is the seventh time in the last three years that an American has been held back in Pyongyang. Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae, who has been detained in North Korea for at least a year, was accused of trying to overthrow the Democratic People's Republic of Korea government. But according to Stanford University Korea specialist Daniel Sneider, Newman's case is "a real weird one."
"He is not an ethnic Korean," he told the Times. "He is not a missionary running around distributing Bibles. We wonder if he said something he shouldn't have or took pictures of something he shouldn't have, but that doesn't explain it."
Newman's friend William M. Mason said that their trip went smoothly until the 85-year-old was held by officials of the DPRK.
"They were sitting, waiting to take off," Mason recounted. "A stewardess escorted two guys in uniform on the plane, and he has been held incommunicado ever since. When he didn't come back as scheduled, the family got extremely worried. They don't know how he is or whether he is getting his medication."
Mason wagered that perhaps Newman mentioned to his North Korean guides that he was an officer during the War and that prompted officials to take him into custody.
According to sources close to the case, Former Defense Secreatry William Perry, who has done business with Newman in the past, is making moves behind closed doors to get Newman back to the states. The LA Times reported that State Department officials are also involved in the release negotiations.