BEIJING — An 85-year-old tourist from Palo Alto was buckled in his seat last month 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 seized 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.
"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 rules, making it easier for American citizens to visit.
"He really wanted to see Korea today," said William M. Mason, a friend of Newman.
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."
Mason said friends believe that Newman might have mentioned to his North Korean guides that he had served as an infantry officer during the Korean War and "they decided he is a guy they can take as a hostage." He dismissed suggestions that Newman would have blurted out something offensive to the North Koreans.
"For an 85-year-old, he is sharp as a tack. And I wouldn't put Merrill in the category of coming out with untrammeled speech," said Mason. The detention "is incomprehensible, other than to say, 'Oh, there go the North Koreans again.'"
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.
A retired chief financial officer, Newman serves as a consultant to the investment banking firm WR Hambrecht & Co. Former Defense Secretary William Perry is also associated with the firm.
According to people familiar with the case, Perry has been working quietly to secure Newman's release, as have State Department officials Robert King, the special envoy for human rights in North Korea, and Glyn Davies, the special representative for North Korea policy.
The North Koreans, however, have not made any comment 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.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times