State Dept. Mum on Palo Alto Grandfather Detained in North Korea

The U.S. State Department didn't reveal much of anything on Thursday in the wake of reports that North Korean officials had detained an 85-year-old California veteran of the Korean War last month.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a wide-ranging news conference in Washington, D.C., that she "wouldn't dispute" reports that Merrill Newman was being held in North Korea, but she wouldn't confirm it either.

"I just don't have any more specifics on it," Psaki told reporters.

Earlier Thursday, NBC News' Andrea Mitchell had asked Secretary of State John Kerry about the reports Newman had been detained, but he did not address Newman's reported detention specifically.

"They have other people, too," Kerry said. "These are all very, very disturbing choices by the North Koreans."

Newman's son, Jeffrey Newman of Pasadena, told the Associated Press that on Oct. 26 his father had been set to return to California when a uniformed North Korean officer boarded the plane he was on and asked for his passport. Jeffrey Newman said his father, who lives in a Palo Alto assisted living facility called the Channing House and was traveling as a tourist, was then told by a flight attendant that he had to leave the plane.
"My dad got off, walked out with the stewardess, and that's the last he was seen,'' Jeffrey Newman said.

It wasn't clear what led to the detention, which the Mercury News first reported on Wednesday. 

Newman taught high school in Berkeley and Livermore, and had been to Korea as an infantry officer during the Korean War, the newspaper reported.

“There are parts of this that are, even by North Korean standards, out of the ordinary,” said Dan Sneider, associate director for research at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford, told NBC Bay Area.

That North Korea has yet to formally admit holding Newman is "very unusual," according to Sneider. It may indicate that the North Koreans "don't know what to do with him yet," he said.

Sneider said North Korea might hope to use Newman to get something from the United States, as in 2009, when former president Bill Clinton visited Pyongyang to secure the release of two American journalists.

Newman's son told the Associated Press that he was speaking regularly with the U.S. State Department about his father, but U.S. officials wouldn't confirm the detention to reporters, including NBC Bay Area, citing privacy issues.

The son said that, according to his father's traveling companion, Newman earlier had a "difficult'' discussion with North Korean officials about his experiences during the 1950-53 war between U.S.-led United Nations forces and North Korea and ally China.

That war ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula still technically at war. The war is still an important part of North Korean propaganda, which regularly accuses Washington and Seoul of trying to bring down its political system - statements analysts believe are aimed in part at shoring up domestic support for young leader Kim Jong Un.
The detention comes about a year after North Korea detained another American and as the U.S. State Department warns in a formal notice that Americans should avoid travel to the country, in part because of the risk of arbitrary arrest and detention.
North Korea has detained at least six Americans since 2009, often for alleged missionary work, but it is unusual for a tourist to be arrested. The North's secretive, authoritarian government is sensitive about foreign travelers, and tourists are closely monitored. Analysts say it has used detained Americans as diplomatic pawns in a long-running standoff with the United States over the North's nuclear bomb production, something it denies.
Speaking Thursday to reporters in Beijing, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davies wouldn't confirm Newman's detention but said, generally, that Washington was working with the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, which acts as America's protecting power because Washington and Pyongyang don't have official diplomatic relations, ``to try to move this issue along and of course calling on North Korea ...  to resolve the issue and to allow our citizens to go free.''
Merrill Newman was traveling with his friend, Bob Hamrdla, who was allowed to return. Hamrdla said in a statement that "there has to be a terrible misunderstanding'' and asked for Newman to be quickly returned to his family.
Jeffrey Newman said his father always wanted to visit North Korea and took lessons in the language before leaving on the nine-day trip. Newman said he believed the inspiration came from the three years his father spent as an infantry officer in the Korean War, but said his father never talked about his service. The son added that the Swedish ambassador had delivered his father's heart medication to the North Korean Foreign Affairs Ministry, but it was unclear whether he had received it.
Despite some recent nuclear diplomacy, tensions remain on the Korean Peninsula after a spring that saw threats from North Korea of nuclear strikes against Washington and Seoul. International disarmament talks are currently deadlocked, with North Korea demanding status as an atomic power and Washington refusing to resume the talks until the North makes progress on past disarmament commitments. The North is estimated to have a handful of crude nuclear devices and has conducted three underground atomic tests.
Davies, the U.S. envoy, told reporters that the holding of American citizens by North Korea is a further indication of its lack of sincerity on restarting a dialogue on nuclear issues.

Jeffrey Newman said he believed North Korea would eventually release his father after realizing that all they have is an "elderly traveler, a grandfather with a heart condition.'' 
"We don't know what this misunderstanding is all about,'' he said. ""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.''

 NBC Bay Area's Kris Sanchez, and the Associated Press' Foster Klug, Robert Jablon, Channing Joseph and Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this story.

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