When North Korea dragged an elderly American tourist from a plane and detained him four weeks ago, they appear to have targeted the wrong man.
Officials from the secretive Communist state may have thought they were detaining a highly decorated US Korean War veteran, unaware they were apprehending someone with an almost identical name to their intended target.
Frequent visitors to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, say the reclusive country regularly screens tourists, sometimes with a simple internet name search, so when Merrill E Newman was grabbed, North Korean authorities may have thought they had captured Merrill H Newman.
Both are US Korean War veterans in their 80s, but Merrill H Newman was awarded a Silver Star medal for holding off a heavy Chinese attack during the 1950-3 war. China was the North’s ally during the war.
“The thought did occur to me … that maybe there’s a case of mistaken identity,” Merrill H Newman, 84, said in a telephone interview.
With North Korea still technically at war with the US, Pyongyang may view the decorated Merrill H Newman as someone worth detaining.
Merrill H Newman’s distinguished war record may have given him a higher profile in an internet search, that was until news of Merrill E Newman’s detention broke this week.
North Korea has not commented on the arrest of Merrill E Newman, 85, from Palo Alto in California, and the US state department has refused to provide any details of the detention.
Merrill E Newman was pulled off a plane as he was about to leave North Korea last month.
His son, Jeff, said he was briefly taken aside from his tour on the day before he was due to leave by officials, one of whom was with the tour group and the other an unknown official who discussed his war record.
Merrill E Newman’s service file is not on public record. All that is known is he was an infantry officer during the war.
“The Korean War was discussed and my dad’s role in the service, and the meeting concluded,” Jeff Newman said, describing a conversation between his father and North Korean officials the night before he was set to fly home. North Korea is technically at war with America after an armistice rather than a peace treaty ended the conflict.
It was not possible to confirm whether an internet search did take place, but people who visit the North regularly report previous cases of mistaken identity.
“I have been e-mailed before by someone from a DPRK [Democractic People’s Republic of Korea] embassy who has searched on the internet and found something they consider to be undesirable linked to someone with the same name as a tourist whose visa I have applied for,” said Hannah Barraclough, tourism manager at Beijing-based Koryo Tours.
While US veterans have travelled to the North on specially arranged tours, some veterans may be viewed as unwelcome by the authorities.
Merrill H Newman was cited in his Silver Star nomination for holding off five enemy fighters trying to capture wounded US troops near his command post. He has never returned to Korea and has no intention of doing so.
“We were doing pretty well until there was an entire regiment of Chinese, and they had constructed a lot of underground tunnels so they just started popping up all over the place,” Merrill H Newman, a former second lieutenant, said of the day in May 1952 when he fought Chinese troops.
Nine of his men were killed and more than 35 wounded. “They’d just come at you in hordes and you just knock them down,” he said from his home in Beaverton, Oregon.
He did not remember how many casualties he and his comrades inflicted, but said the battle began before sunrise and lasted all day.
Joe Davis, for the Veterans of Foreign Wars organisation, said old soldiers are known to “revisit where they went to war” and he expressed disappointment at Merrill E Newman’s detention. “It’s very unfortunate and it does North Korea no good in the eyes of the world,” he said. “We hope that US diplomatic efforts can bring an end to this.”