North Korea should "recognize the dangerous steps it has been taking" in detaining an American citizen and restarting its nuclear reactors, Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday.
“I think this is obviously one of those moments where North Korea needs to figure out where it’s heading and recognize that the United States of America is not engaging in belligerent and threatening behavior,” Kerry told NBC News.
Last month, an 85-year-old tourist from Palo Alto was buckled in his seat on a plane preparing to depart Pyongyang, North Korea, when a flight attendant pointed him out to two men in uniform. They promptly escorted him off the plane.
The man, Merrill Newman, a retired financial executive and Korean War veteran, has not been heard from since.
Newman was detained Oct. 26 at Pyongyang's Sunan International Airport, but the case was initially kept secret at the urging of his family. Word first began to leak out late Tuesday when the State Department issued a cryptically worded advisory against travel to North Korea. Without mentioning Newman's name, the advisory warned that the department had received reports of "authorities arbitrarily detaining U.S. citizens and not allowing them to leave the country."
This is the seventh time that a U.S. citizen has been detained in North Korea since 2009, but previous cases have involved Christian missionaries or people who illegally entered the country, as in the case of two journalists who wandered across the Tumen River from China while reporting on border crossings. A Korean American missionary, Kenneth Bae, has been held in North Korea for more than a year.
Kerry did not directly address Merrill’s detainment Wednesday and only said the country has “other people” besides Bae.
"This is a real weird one," said Daniel Sneider, a Korea specialist at Stanford University. "He is not an ethnic Korean. 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."
Sneider said that Newman's detention raised questions anew about the stability of the North Korean government under Kim Jong Un, 30, who took the helm after his father, Kim Jong Il, died in December 2011.
"The real story here is what is going on in North Korea. Who is making the decisions?" Sneider said.
North Korea has in recent years become an exotic destination for tourists, who sign up for highly escorted package tours from Beijing to marvel at the grandiose communist monuments, the mass acrobatics and socialist kitsch, fast disappearing elsewhere in the 21st century. In 2010, North Korea eased its travel rules, making it easier for American citizens to visit.
"He really wanted to see Korea today," said William M. Mason, a friend of Newman's.
Newman, who lives with his ailing wife, had arranged his trip with a friend, Bob Hamrdla, a retired Stanford official who now organizes tours for alumni, according to people familiar with the case. The trip went as scheduled until the last morning, when the two men boarded an Air Koryo flight bound for Beijing.
"They were sitting, waiting to take off. A stewardess escorted two guys in uniform on the plane, and he has been held incommunicado ever since," said Mason, a professor emeritus of sociology at UCLA. "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."
The United States does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea, and negotiations over Newman, as with other detainees, are being handled by the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.
The North Koreans have not commented about Newman or confirmed his detention, which is in itself unusual.
The United States so far has been unsuccessful in negotiations to free Bae, the longest-held U.S. detainee since the end of the Korean War.