BEIJING — Merrill Newman, the 85-year-old war veteran from Palo Alto who was arrested in October on suspicion of committing hostile acts against North Korea, was released from Pyongyang and on his way home Saturday.
Newman, a retired tech executive, had been pulled off an airplane about to leave the capital on Oct. 26 at the end of a 10-day tour, after speaking to his North Korean guides about his service in a clandestine anti-communist army unit during the 1950-53 Korean War.
"I'm very glad to be on my way home," Newman was quoted by Japanese media as saying at the Beijing airport. He had arrived on an Air Koryo flight like the one from which he'd been removed six weeks earlier. "I feel good. I want to go home to see my wife."
Vice President Joe Biden, who was in South Korea on Saturday touring the demilitarized zone bordering North Korea, applauded the release "of someone they should never have had in the first place." Biden said he had no "direct role" in the release.
"I offered him a ride home on Air Force Two, but as he pointed out, there's a direct flight to San Francisco, so I don't blame him," Biden said. "I'd be on that flight too."
North Korean officials a week ago released a video confession in which Newman said he had been trying to contact survivors from his military unit and their families.
In a statement Saturday, the official Korean Central News Agency said that Newman had entered the country under "the guise of a tourist to confirm the whereabouts of the spies and terrorists who had been trained and dispatched by him."
"Taking into consideration his admittance of the act committed by him …[the] apology made by him, his sincere repentance of it and his advanced age and health condition, [North Korea] deported him from the country from a humanitarian viewpoint," the statement said.
Newman was an officer in what was called the Mt. Kuwol unit, which operated off the west coast of North Korea, conducting guerrilla raids on communist military and civilian targets in the latter part of the Korean War and in the immediate aftermath.
Newman's family said in a statement last week that he reported being well-treated.
"We are asking that the DPRK [North Korean] authorities take into account his health and his age and, as an act of humanitarian compassion, allow him to depart immediately for home," the statement read.
The U.S. State Department confirmed that Newman had been released and was in Beijing on his way back to the United States. There was no word on the fate of another U.S. citizen, Kenneth Bae, who has been held by North Korea for more than a year for missionary activities, which are illegal in the country.
"We are pleased Mr. Merrill Newman has been allowed to depart the DPRK and rejoin his family," the State Department said in a statement. "This positive decision by the DPRK throws into sharper relief the continuing detention of Mr. Kenneth Bae, who has been in DPRK custody for over a year."