I had news regarding the detention of US citizen & Korean War veteran, Merrill Newman, two weeks before it broke. I didn’t hear back from NBC News despite repeated contacts.
A couple nights into our stay in North Korea, we were joined at dinner by a junior government official working in the organization that provides guides / minders for foreigners visiting the country.
We were told that the authorities had detained an American Korean War veteran who was in his eighties and that it had just made international news. Due to not having access to any news inside North Korea, the only way we could have known this was by being directly told. They suggested I call home to inform Eve that I was fine and later that evening a phone line was opened for me to do so.
He told us that the American was detained due to his repeated provocations of North Koreans, pointing out the deficiencies of the country and challenging the narrative of the North having won the Korean War. They said he was trying to meet North Korean veterans – although I don’t know how he would have done that with minders hovering over him at every moment, as is the reality of visiting the country. But intention could probably be construed as conspiracy in the DPRK.
Prodded for a reaction, my party of three (of which I was the only American) suggested they release him due to his advanced age. We were told that presumably a North Korean badmouthing the US while visiting an American city would also be detained. We then explained the sacred protection of free speech. This was quite literally a foreign concept to them.
We were then informed that the American was being held under guard at a hotel as opposed to a jail cell.
The most frustrating part of this story is the fact I contacted NBC News as soon as I landed back in Beijing (now over two weeks ago), in hopes of at least getting this news to Newman’s family. I didn’t hear back. I contacted them a week later when the news emerged of Merrill Newman’s handwritten and signed confession. I again did not hear back.
I contacted NBC News privately because I believed they would handle it responsibly. I did not want to put information out that would endanger Mr. Newman nor identify myself publicly as the source. Now that he’s home it doesn’t matter.
Today, ABC News is reporting that Newman was held in a hotel, was comfortable, and always had enough to eat. You don’t say!
I hope his family knew this information via other channels. My understanding is that the US State Department was in touch with the North Korean government.