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 late Friday when North Korea released Merrill Newman after 41 days in custody.
"I am very glad to be on my way home," a smiling Newman told reporters after arriving at the airport in Beijing from Pyongyang. "And I appreciate the tolerance the (North Korean) government has given me to be on my way."
Vice President Joe Biden, who was in South Korea to visit a Korean War memorial in Seoul, spoke to Newman and offered him a ride home on Air Force Two. But Newman declined, saying he planned to take a direct flight from Beijing to San Francisco.
"I feel good," Newman told reporters, adding that he was looking forward to reuniting with his wife, Lee, on Saturday. The couple lives in the Channing House retirement complex in Palo Alto, where residents tied yellow ribbons around the front pillars of the building. When his release was announced in the dining hall at dinner time Friday, the residents erupted in applause.
"People in the hallways are saying how glad they are to hear this, and we hope he gets back very soon and very safely," said Bill Blankenburg, a neighbor at the retirement home.
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 Newman, had 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, called on the North Koreans to also release Kenneth Bae, another U.S. citizen in the North's custody.
Biden 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.
(c)2013 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)
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Distributed by MCT Information Services
Original headline: North Korea frees Palo Alto resident Merrill Newman; U.S. has 'in hand in Beijing'
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