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California man, 85, detained in North Korea since Oct. 26

An 85-year-old tourist from Palo Alto has been detained in North Korea, prompting the U.S. State Department to issue an advisory against travel to the country.

Merrill Newman, a retired financial executive and Korean War veteran, was escorted off an airplane on Oct. 26 at Pyongyang's Sunan International Airport as he was preparing to depart North Korea, a family friend said.

Newman hasn't been heard from since.

The family initially kept the case secret, but word 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. 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."

A friend of Newman's, William M. Mason, said the trip went as scheduled until the last morning.

"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.

The detention "is incomprehensible, other than to say, 'Oh, there go the North Koreans again,'" Mason said.

The United States does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea, and negotiations 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.

The North Koreans have not commented about the case or confirmed Newman's detention, which is in itself unusual.


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