North Korea’s Detention of American Merrill Newman Shouldn’t Surprise Many


North Korea’s Detention of American Merrill Newman Shouldn’t Surprise Many


Although the exact date cannot be independently verified, the North Korean state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) released a video showing an elderly American citizen, Merrill E. Newman, reading an apology for a “long list of indelible crimes” committed while he was an American soldier during the Korean War.

According to his family, Mr. Newman was in the hermit kingdom trying to find closure from what some consider the “forgotten war” when North Korean authorities boarded his flight and took him into custody as he was scheduled to fly to Beijing on October 26th. Mr. Newman’s family reported that he had met with Sweden’s ambassador in Pyongyang and medication was delivered, CNN reports. “As a result of the visit, we know that Merrill is in good health,” the family said. “Merrill reports that he is being well treated and that the food is good.”

“We are asking that the DPRK authorities take into account his health and his age and, as an act of humanitarian compassion, allow him to depart immediately for home,” the family pleaded with North Korean authorities. “All of us want this ordeal to end and for the 85-year-old head of our extended family to be with us once more.”

The motives for Mr. Newman’s detention are unclear. Possibly, Pyongyang was feeling neglected as it does from time to time as other world events captured international headlines. The U.S.-Iran nuclear agreement, the disaster in the Philippines, Karzai’s recent tantrums all have captured the world’s attention, but North Korea has refocused attention on itself by detaining an elderly American citizen. Over the decades North Korea has detained and kidnapped countless foreign nationals; Japanese, South Koreans and at least a half-dozen Americans since 2009. The most notable cases of Americans being detained were two journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who wandered too close to the Chinese-Korean border in 2009, and Kenneth Bae, an American missionary, who is still being held in captivity.

“Given Mr. Newman’s advanced age and health conditions, we urge the DPRK to release Mr. Newman so he may return home and reunite with his family,” a State Department official said. Part of Newman’s “apology” which was released by the Korean Central News Agency reads: “As I killed so many civilians and KPA soldiers and destroyed strategic objects in the DPRK during the Korean War, I committed indelible offensive acts against the DPRK government and Korean people.”

“On this trip I can understand that in US and western countries there is misleading information and propaganda about DPRK. If I go back to USA, I will tell the true features of the DPRK and the life the Korean people are leading,” the statement concludes.

Pyongyang possibly might be seeking a way out of Newman’s detention as the statement can be interpreted as a way to save face. By suggesting in his statement that he will travel back to the United States to “tell the truth” Pyongyang might be prepared to release him having made their point and orchestrated another propaganda tool for the North Korean masses.

Separately from Mr. Newman’s statement, KCNA released the following statement: “He (Newman) is a criminal as he masterminded espionage and subversive activities against the DPRK and in this course he was involved in killings of service personnel of the Korean People’s Army and innocent civilians. The investigation clearly proved Newman’s hostile acts against the DPRK and they were backed by evidence. He admitted all his crimes and made an apology for them.”

Whatever fate befalls Mr. Newman this latest instance of North Korea being North Korea is unlikely to thaw relations between Washington and Pyongyang. Washington has no formal means to communicate with Pyongyang, except through Sweden, since North Korea severed a military hotline several months ago in retaliation for U.S.-South Korean military drills. There is unlikely going to be a solution to bringing Mr. Newman home soon unless Pyongyang deems his value less than the bad press associated with holding a senior citizen captive.

This latest saga should not astound many. After the pudgy son of Kim Jong-Il, Kim Jong-Un, assumed power following his father’s death, Kim Jong-Un has continued many of his father’s ill-conceived policies. Pyongyang threated South Korea and the United States with nuclear annihilation after the United States pushed for stronger sanctions. The most astounding news surrounding the “supreme leader” was the execution of his ex-girlfriend by firing squad in August. South Korea’s English newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, reported that Hyon Song-Wol was arrested and executed along with several other “political dissidents” for making a sex tape.

Whether or not Pyongyang releases Mr. Newman in the near future and odds are they will, Washington’s approach towards Pyongyang is unlikely to change nor should it. Mr. Newman’s detention, the continued detention of Kenneth Bae and the likely detention of others in the future will not change the fact that Pyongyang will continue it’s self-destructive behaviour for the foreseeable future. Maybe in the end it’s up to Dennis Rodman to reform his new best friend, Kim Jong-Un.

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