PALO ALTO, Calif. — Six months before Merrill Newman flew to North Korea as a tourist, he reached out to surviving members of the once-top-secret guerrilla group he trained as an Army infantryman in the war six decades ago.
“I may not be able to make this happen, but if I can, I would like to know if there is any message I can deliver and anyone special I could see,” he apparently wrote in an email released over the weekend by North Korea’s central news agency. “It was a long time ago, of course, but I have always been sorry that I did not meet the Comrades there during the times of action.”
That email is now one of the many mysterious details emerging as experts and friends alike wonder how the 85-year-old grandfather with a heart condition wound up in custody in North Korea at the center of an international quagmire.
Some of Newman’s aging war friends who had escaped after the war to South Korea were waiting for his plane at the airport near Seoul on Oct. 27 for their third reunion in a decade. The men, who were North Korean rebels fighting against their own communist government behind enemy lines near Kuwol Mountain 60 years earlier, held bouquets of flowers to welcome back their former U.S. commander.
He never showed.
After Newman’s 10-day, closely guided tour of North Korea, he was pulled off the plane by North Korean officials as it readied for liftoff in Pyongyang. He’s been in custody ever since, accused of war crimes during his service in 1953 and charged with slandering the reclusive country’s socialist system and committing “hostile acts” in October by looking for spies and terrorists “under the guise of a tourist.”
One of those former rebels, who had been waiting for Newman at the airport, said the charges have been exaggerated and “don’t make sense.”