One month ago today, Merrill E. Newman, an 85-year-old Korean War veteran from the U.S., was removed from an airplane just minutes before it was scheduled to depart from Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport. Newman was then detained by authorities and put in a North Korean prison. The elderly veteran had just completed a 10-day guided sightseeing tour of the communist country.
“My father is a veteran and wanted to see the country and culture he has been interested in for years,” Newman’s son, Jeff, told CNN. “He arranged this with a travel agent that was recommended and said was approved by the North Korean government for travel of foreigners. He had all the proper visas.”
The younger Newman added: “We understand [he was] five minutes from taking off when the Korean official came aboard, asked to see his passport then asked the stewardess to ask him to leave the plane and he left the plane with apparently no incident or drama and he’s been there ever since.”
According to new reports, Newman’s arrest may have been the result of mistaken identity.
While Merrill E. Newman spent three years in North Korea as an infantry officer, he doesn’t appear to have been involved in any major campaigns. Merrill H. Newman, however, was a highly decorated American veteran, awarded the Silver Star for holding off a heavy Chinese offensive during the Korean War.
Their names differ by only the middle initial and they are a year apart in age.
“The thought did occur to me, that maybe there’s a case of mistaken identity,” Merrill H. Newman, 84, told Reuters.
Reuters added: “With North Korea still technically at war with the United States, Pyongyang may view the decorated Merrill H. Newman as someone worth detaining.”
Jeff Newman also said that his father spoke with North Korean officials a day before his departure from the reclusive nation. His service record was discussed, and the younger Newman described his father as being “bothered” by the encounter, but not worried.
If Newman revealed that he had once fought against North Korea, he may have been arrested for espionage.
The 85-year-old veteran suffers from a heart condition that requires daily medication. Because the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, Newman’s family must rely on the Swedish ambassador in Pyongyang to deliver the life-saving drugs.
“We don’t know what this misunderstanding is all about,” Jeff Newman pleaded. “All we want as a family is to have my father, my kids’ grandfather, returned to California so he can be with his family for Thanksgiving.”
Kenneth Bae, a 45-year-old Korean-American, has been jailed in North Korea for more than a year. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for what the Hermit Kingdom called “hostile acts” after acting as a tour leader for a group of Chinese businessmen.
The U.S. State Department has publicly called for the immediate release of both Newman and Bae.