85-year-old Korean War veteran Merrill Newman has been stuck in North Korea since late October, when he was abruptly pulled off a Beijing-bound flight in Pyongyang and arrested. The North Korean authorities had previously declined to explain why Newman was detained, but on Saturday the North Korean Central News Agency claimed that he had admitted to committing war crimes when he served as an infantryman there. “He is a criminal as he masterminded espionage and subversive activities against the DPRK and in this course he was involved in killings of service personnel of the Korean People’s Army and innocent civilians,” said the report, which was accompanied by a chilling video of Newman apologizing in a stilted videotaped “confession” dated November 9.
A composed if understandably nervous-looking Newman can be seen standing in some kind of conference room, reading aloud from a handwritten document. “After I killed so many civilians and (North Korean) soldiers and destroyed strategic objects in the DPRK during the Korean War, I committed indelible offensive acts against the DPRK government and Korean people,” he says. “If I go back to (the) USA, I will tell the true features of the DPRK and the life the Korean people are leading.” He is then shown signing and applying his fingerprint to the pages.
Newman went to North Korea as part of a nine-day state-sanctioned tour to “put some closure” on his time in the military, according to his wife. The New York Times reports that Bob Hamrdla, a friend who joined Newman on the trip, said, “Mr. Newman’s talk with the tour guide the day before his planned departure had not gone well and had left him upset.” The KCNA report also said that Newman had asked a guide “to help look for any surviving soldiers he would have fought against or their families.” In the taped confession, Newman explains, “Shamelessly I had a plan to meet any surviving soldiers and pray for the souls of the dead soldiers in Kuwol Mt. during the Korean war.” So far, neither Newman’s family nor the United States government, which is said to be working through Sweden to keep tabs on the American, has responded to the KCNA’s releases, but it seems pretty clear that North Korea is trying to prompt some kind of reaction.
Update: The AP reports that the United States is now “urging” North Korea to let Newman go: “National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden says that given Newman’s age and health — he’s on heart medication — North Korea should release him so he can be reunited with his family.”