Sixty years after the fighting stopped for U.S. forces on the Korean peninsula, North Korean officials pulled an elderly American veteran of the war from a plane in Pyongyang last month and have been holding him since.
The North Koreans haven’t explained detaining the man, or even that they have him in custody, so it remains a mystery why they’re doing it, but one report suggests a simple answer: They’ve got the wrong guy.
Merrill E. Newman, 85, of Palo Alto, Calif., was a tourist winding up his first trip to Korea since the war ended in 1953 when he boarded a plane in the North Korean capital on Oct. 26, headed for Beijing, according to news reports.
Before the flight could take off though, North Korean security officials entered the plane and ordered Newman off. He hasn’t been heard from in almost a month, his son Jeffrey says.
“My dad got off, walked out with the stewardess, and that’s the last he was seen,” Jeffrey Newman said, according to USA Today.
“All we want as a family is to have my father, my kids’ grandfather, returned to California so he can be with his family for Thanksgiving.”
Fox News reported a friend traveling with Merrill Newman said Newman had earlier had a run-in of sorts with North Korean officials about his service during the three-year war.
“We think that the conversation was difficult at times,” Jeffrey Newman said, but did not know details.
However, a Reuters report Friday suggests Merrill Newman might have been mistaken for another veteran of that war with almost the same name, one whose decorated heroism in battle might be remembered by the North Koreans all these decades later.
Citing frequent visitors to the Hermit Kingdom, the article states North Koreans often run Internet searches on foreign tourists – and the mistakes in identity are frequent. The North Koreans — who are basically bureaucrats in a Third World country with nuclear weapons and not enough rice to go around — might have confused Merrill E. Newman, the detained American, with Merrill H. Newman, a former Marine who won the Silver Star for valor during the war.
Merrill E. Newman was an infantry officer during the war, but more about his record wasn’t available, Reuters reported.
With the war technically still continuing – the 1953 armistice ended hostilities, not the actual war – the nuclear-armed-but-rice-deprived North Koreans might have thought detaining an American war hero would give them some leverage over a feckless Obama administration, which hasn’t shown any inclination so far to demand Newman’s immediate, safe release.
“The thought did occur to me … that maybe there’s a case of mistaken identity,” Merrill H. Newman, 84, told Reuters in a telephone interview from his home in Beaverton, Ore.
Merrill H. Newman also said he has no plans to visit North Korea any time soon.
All things considered, it’s probably smart not to.
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