San Jose Mercury News - Palo Alto's Merril Newman, freed by North Korea, is back in the USA

January 30, 2014
In The News

By Julia Prodis Sulek, Tracy Seipel and Brandon Bailey

The tense and intriguing international saga of an 85-year-old Palo Alto grandfather with a heart condition and a top-secret past came to an end today when his United Airlines jet touched down shortly before 9 a.m. at San Francisco International Airport.

A day earlier, North Korea had released Merrill Newman after 42 days in custody and put him on a plane to Beijing.

"I'm delighted to be home," a smiling Newman told reporters after being whisked through customs. With his wife, Lee, and son, Jeffrey, by his side, he thanked the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang and the U.S. embassy in Beijing for their help getting him released and home as quickly as possible.

Appearing weary and a bit dazed, Newman spoke only briefly to about two dozen reporters and camera crews who were waiting for him at the international terminal.

"It's a great homecoming," he added. "I'm tired but ready to be with my family. Thank you all for the support that we got. I really appreciate it."

He did not answer reporters' questions about his treatment by the North Koreans or his experience in captivity.

But Newman did answer one reporter who asked what would be the first thing he planned to do when he got home to Palo Alto. "I think probably I'll take my shoes off," he said, adding that he hopes to "relax."

In addition to his wife and son, Newman was also met by several people who appeared to be family friends. They did not speak with reporters and were escorted by police to an elevator that took them to the airport parking garage.

Newman apparently did not go directly home, however, to the apartment he shares with his wife at the Channing House retirement center in Palo Alto, where friends and neighbors had tied yellow ribbons around the building's front pillars in anticipation of his return.

Another crowd of reporters waited for him there, but when Newman had not arrived there by noon, more than two hours after his flight landed, some speculated the family may have gone to another location to avoid attention for a while.

Vice President Joe Biden, who was in South Korea to visit a Korean War memorial in Seoul when Newman was released by the North, spoke to him by phone and offered him a ride home on Air Force Two. But Newman declined, telling the vice president he preferred to take a non-stop flight from Beijing to San Francisco.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department said officials had no further information about Newman's ordeal on Saturday. In a statement Friday, the department welcomed North Korea's decision to release Newman while calling on that country to do the same for Kenneth Bae, an American who has been imprisoned in North Korea for more than a year following his arrest on charges stemming from his Christian missionary work.

U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, meanwhile, issued a statement Saturday welcoming her constituent home.

"It is a great joy and relief to know that Merrill Newman has been released by the North Korean government and is finally on his way home," Eshoo said Saturday. "Merrill and Lee Newman are beloved by the Palo Alto community, and we welcome him home with grateful hearts and open arms."

Newman had told his neighbors before his trip that he simply wanted to return as a tourist to North Korea, where he was an Army infantry officer in 1953. His son Jeffrey said that the war had a "profound, powerful impact" on him.

After Newman, a retired corporate finance executive, was first plucked off the plane by North Korean officials on Oct. 26 at the end of his 10-day tour, his wife and son said there must have been a "terrible misunderstanding."

Newman's release came a week after new details emerged about his role during the Korean War secretly training anti-communist guerrillas fighting behind enemy lines. Those revelations also shed light on the videotaped "apology'' that Newman gave his captors Nov. 9, when he purportedly admitted committing crimes during the war as well as "hostile acts'' against the state during last month's visit.

"I'm not surprised,'' said Thaddeus Taylor III, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer said of North Korea's decision to release Newman. "They only had two basic choices: One: let him go. Two: watch him die.''

Taylor, a 68-year-old Bishop resident who had spent time in South Korea in the 1970s, had alerted this newspaper --the first to report that Newman had been detained -- after hearing about Newman's plight.

Taylor said there was "no upside'' for the North Koreans to keep Newman.

Dan Sneider, a North Korea expert at Stanford's Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, agreed.

"Confirmation of his release is great news -- and great news for the family," said Sneider, who lives around the block from Newman. "I think it's evidence of common sense on the part of the North Korean government."

The family did not respond to request for comment late Friday.

Vice President Biden, speaking to reporters in Seoul, said he had no role in Newman's release. But just what deals were made to make it happen, if any, were not immediately known.

"We're not sure what sort of diplomacy was pursued by the Swedes who are representing us there," said Thomas Henriksen, a senior fellow at the Stanford's Hoover Institution and author of "America and the Rogue States."

"We don't know what the United States offered if they offered anything," Henriksen said.

The North Koreans characterized Newman as a mastermind of clandestine operations and accused him of killing civilians during the war.

In his videotaped "confession" released last week, Newman ostensibly accepted responsibility for training a guerrilla group called the Kuwol Partisan Regiment, a unit of rebel North Koreans opposed to the communist regime.

Over the past decade, Newman had traveled to South Korea twice to connect with the former rebel soldiers who had fled to the South after the war. This time, however, he apparently emailed them in advance, saying he was planning a trip to North Korea and asked if he could deliver any messages to relatives there. A copy of the purported email was released by the North Koreans and used as evidence against him of espionage.

Some of his old comrades were waiting at the airport near Seoul on Oct. 27, expecting him to land. They carried bouquets of flowers to welcome his return. He never showed.