By Julia Prodis Sulek
San Jose Mercury News (MCT)
---- — 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.”
In an interview with The Associated Press, Park Boo Seo, 80, also raised a question that has caused much consternation: “Why did he go to North Korea? The North Koreans still gnash their teeth at the Kuwol unit.”
The Korean War may have ended 60 years ago, but the stories of the guerrilla groups that bedeviled the North Koreans were fresh when Newman returned seven weeks ago.
In recent years, after their top-secret missions were declassified in the late 1990s, stories of the heroic exploits of these North Korean rebels fighting against their own communistic regime flooded the South Korean airwaves and seeped into the north. Just last year, a South Korean television network aired a four-hour documentary about these so-called White Tigers and the munitions dumps they exploded, the supply lines they intercepted, the soldiers they killed, the spies they sent to infiltrate the North Korean Army.
“They hated us because they knew we were leading the North Korea citizens that hated the communist form of government and we were the advisers in North Korea,” said Col. Ben Malcom, who was an infantry officer, like Newman, during the war. He wrote about his guerrilla unit in “White Tigers,” a 1996 book that inspired many of the radio and TV reports that have recently aired.
For a totalitarian regime bent on controlling media propaganda, a country that in some ways is still fighting the Korean War despite a cease-fire 60 years ago, the stories that glorified the humiliation they suffered at the hands of their own could not have been welcomed.
Into this walked Newman, who had led a unit called Donkey 6. He told his neighbors in mid-October at the Channing House retirement complex in Palo Alto, which offers movie nights on Tuesdays, bingo on Thursdays and a jigsaw puzzle in the lobby, that he was heading off for a sightseeing trip.
It was a bad idea at the wrong time, said Thomas Henriksen, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of “America and the Rogue States.”
“In retrospect, it was quite foolhardy,” Henriksen said. “Whether he thought it through — he’s an old man — maybe he thought things were different. Americans have a sense of invulnerability. People just don’t understand how serious it is.”
Early on, Newman’s wife and son told reporters that he was simply returning to the land that had a “powerful, profound impact” on him. But after the North Koreans released the email, which has not been authenticated, and a videotaped “confession” from Newman last week, his captivity has escalated into an international incident that is far more complicated than it first appeared.
It also may be more dire.
On Tuesday, reports surfaced indicating more unrest within the North Korean government. Leader Kim Jong Un’s uncle, considered more liberal and open to reforms, apparently has been ousted from the government and his aides executed.
“This is a time when North Korean authorities are a little tense. They’re not going to want to be in a forthcoming mood to release somebody now,” Henriksen said. “Anyone suspected of any kind of softness or being complicit with America will be looked on poorly. It doesn’t help his chances.”
At the same time, Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday said the United States is doing all it can to secure the release of Newman and other Americans held captive around the world.
“These things are often best resolved in quiet diplomacy, under the radar screen, behind the scenes, and that is exactly what we have been pursuing,” Kerry told reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels. “And when, in fact, we secure their release, the track record of those outreaches and those initiatives will speak for themselves as to how much effort and energy has been put into trying to secure their release. And, God willing, we will get that done sooner rather than later, we hope.”
©2013 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)