OFFICIALS in North Korea yesterday said they had deported an elderly American tourist who was detained for more than a month for alleged hostile acts against the country.
North Korea had made the decision because Merrill Newman, 85, a US veteran of the Korean War, apologised for his alleged crimes during the 1950-53 war, the official state news agency KCNA said.
US vice-president Joe Biden welcomed the release and said Newman would be returning to the US as soon as possible after his release.
Newman has yet to speak publicly since being taken off a plane on 26 October by North Korean authorities while preparing to leave the country after a ten-day visit.
“I’m very glad to be on my way home,” he told Japanese reporters after arriving in Beijing on the first leg of his homeward journey.
“And I appreciate the tolerance the government has given to me to be on my way. I feel good. I want to go home to see my wife.”
Last week, KCNA reported Newman had ordered the deaths of North Korean soldiers and civilians during the Korean War.
His family said although he had served in the conflict he had been mistaken for someone else. They told how another veteran, also named Merrill Newman, was awarded a Silver Star medal for his efforts during the war.
The pensioner’s son, Jeffrey Newman, has said that his father, an avid traveller and retired finance executive from California, had always wanted to return to the country where he fought during the Korean War.
In a video released by North Korean authorities last week, Newman was shown reading his alleged apology for the crimes authorities believed he had committed six decades ago.
Authorities had claimed he was an adviser to one of the special operations units acting against the North.
And Newman apparently confessed to trying to contact surviving soldiers during his trip as a tourist, they said.
Biden, while welcoming North Korea’s release of Newman as “a positive thing”, renewed calls for North Korean officials to free another American, Kenneth Bae, who has been held by security forces since November 2012 and sentenced in May to 15 years’ hard labour.
Last week former members of a group of South Korean guerrillas who fought behind enemy lines during Korean War said Newman had been their adviser.
They claimed that he oversaw guerrilla actions and gave the fighters advice, but he wasn’t involved in day-to-day operations.
They also alleged the American pensioner had been scheduled to visit South Korea to meet former Kuwol fighters following his North Korea trip.
Chang Yong Seok, a senior researcher at Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies. said Newman’s alleged written apology and the television broadcast were enough for officials to show outsiders it has “maintained its dignity”.
He said that detaining Newman also hurt impoverished Pyongyang’s efforts to encourage tourism.
“Keeping a tourist who entered the country after state approval doesn’t look good for a country that is trying to boost its tourism industry,” Yong Seok said.
North Korea has detained at least six Americans since 2009. Five of them have been either released or deported after prominent former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter travelled to Pyongyang.
The country has held Kenneth Bae, the sixth detainee, for more than a year.
He is a Korean-American missionary and tour operator who the North accuses of subversion.