Palo Alto Woman Pleads for Release of Husband, 85, Detained in North Korea

Merrill Newman, in back row at right, in a picture from his Channing House retirement community in Palo Alto.
Merrill Newman, in back row at right, in a picture from his Channing House retirement community in Palo Alto.

Update, Friday 11:20 a.m.: The San Jose Mercury News has more on the detention of Palo Alto retiree Merrill Newman in North Korea. The paper says Newman, stopped from leaving Korea after a visit last month, is pleading for his release:

The wife of the Palo Alto war veteran detained by North Korean officials for nearly a month after a visit there issued a statement this morning asking the Korean government to "return this 85-year-old grandfather to his anxious, concerned family."

"There has been some dreadful misunderstanding," Merrill E. Newman's wife, Lee Newman, said in her first public comments since this newspaper on Wednesday broke the news of his detention.

Merrill Newman, a former Army infantry officer in the Korean War, had traveled to the reclusive country for 10 days last month with a friend and fellow resident of the Channing House retirement community in Palo Alto. The night before they were scheduled to leave, Newman was questioned by North Korean officials about his war service there some 60 years earlier, an interview that Newman's son has said was upsetting to his father, who has a heart condition. The next day, on Oct. 26, as Newman sat on the Asiana Airlines flight ready to take off to Beijing, a Korean official escorted him off the plane.

"He has been detained somewhere in North Korea since that time," Mrs. Newman said in the statement. "We have no word on the state of his health, whether or not the medications sent to him through the Swedish Embassy in North Korea have been delivered or why he was detained."

Original post (Wednesday): Japan's Kyodo News Service, the San Jose Mercury News, the San Francisco Chronicle and other outlets are reporting that an 85-year-old Palo Alto man, Merrill Newman, has been detained in North Korea for several weeks following a tour of the country.

Here's a summary from the International Business Times:

Citing an unnamed diplomatic source, Kyodo News Service first announced that North Korean officials may have detained an elderly American man last month who had entered the country on a tourist visa. ...

(An) earlier Kyodo news report said that the man in question entered North Korea for sightseeing and tourism purposes last month on a valid visa, but was arrested for “breaking the law.” Further details have yet to be released or confirmed.

The Mercury News reports:

Sources say North Korean authorities removed [Merrill Newman] from the plane on which he was to leave the country on Oct. 26. Newman and a neighbor visited North Korea — with which the United States has no diplomatic relations — via a tour business based in Beijing.

His traveling companion, Bob Hamrdla, released a statement this afternoon, calling his detainment "a terrible misunderstanding. ... I hope that the North Koreans see this as a humanitarian matter and allow him to return to his family as soon as possible." Although Newman's neighbors at a Palo Alto retirement community said his detention has been a hot topic of conversation in recent weeks, neither North Korea nor the U.S. State Department have formally acknowledged his detention, and his family has refused to speak about it.

"We are aware of reports that a U.S. citizen was detained in North Korea," a State Department official replied via email after this newspaper inquired about Newman. "There is no greater priority for us than the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad. We have no additional information to share at this time."

Newman and Hamrdla are residents of Channing House, a Palo Alto retirement community. The Channing House newsletter contained this item on their planned travels:

Bob Hamrdla no sooner returned from Berlin than he packed up to visit North Korea with Merrill Newman. Merrill took Korean language lessons to prepare for their ten-day independent trip. They will be accompanied at all times by two Korean guides.

The San Francisco Chronicle gives this background on Newman:

Newman's wife, Lee Newman, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday. The couple live at Channing House, a Palo Alto retirement community.

Newman earned a bachelor's degree in zoology from UC Berkeley in 1950 and served three years as an infantry officer in the Korean War. He earned a master's degree in education from Stanford University, where he met his wife.

He retired in 1984 after teaching math, science and swimming at schools in Berkeley and Livermore and working as a manufacturing and finance executive for technology companies. He has been a volunteer with the American Red Cross.

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