The State Department on Friday said North Korea has confirmed it is detaining a U.S. citizen following reports that an 85-year-old man from Palo Alto was escorted off an outbound plane in Pyongyang last month.
The confirmation, relayed by the Swedish consulate in North Korea, came on the same day the wife of Merrill Newman, a retired financial executive and Korean War veteran, issued a statement from her assisted living home pleading for his safe return.
“We have had no word on the state of his health, whether or not the medications sent to him through the Swedish Embassy in North Korea have been delivered or why he was detained,” Lee Newman said in the statement.
She described her husband’s 10-day tour of North Korea as something he had been looking forward to for some time. Postcards sent from his trip described “good times, good weather and knowledgeable guides,” she added.
“The family feels there has been some dreadful misunderstanding leading to his detention and asks that the DPRK work to settle this issue quickly and to return this 85-year-old grandfather to his anxious, concerned family,” Lee Newman said.
Her husband’s traveling companion, Bob Hamrdla, also released a statement earlier in the week calling the detention “a terrible misunderstanding.”
Merrill Newman was buckled in his seat on a plane preparing to depart Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport on Oct. 26 when a flight attendant pointed him out to two men in uniform. They promptly escorted him off the plane.
He has not been heard from since.
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.”
On Friday, Merrill Newman again was not mentioned by name.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters that Swedish officials in North Korea were “informed of the detention of a U.S. citizen,” but did not elaborate further, the Chicago Tribune reported.
Jeffrey Newman, a Pasadena resident, told the San Jose Mercury News that it was hard to believe his father’s military service would be the reason for his detention, saying he was “not breaking any new ground” as a Korean War veteran.
“He’s always wanted to go to North Korea; it’s been a lifelong thing,” Jeff Newman told the paper. “Like the guys who go back to Normandy, the World War II veterans. These places had profound, powerful impacts on them as young men, and he wanted to see it again.”