North Korea said on Saturday it has deported an American veteran of the Korean War who had been detained there since October for what Pyongyang described as “hostile acts” against the communist country.
Merrill Newman, an 85-year-old from California, was deported “from a humanitarian viewpoint”, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said, citing his “sincere repentance” as well as his age and health condition.
The US welcomed news of the release. “We are pleased that Mr Merrill Newman has been allowed to depart the DPRK and rejoin his family. We welcome the DPRK’s decision to release him,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement.
Newman, who has a heart condition, was plucked off a plane last month as he was leaving Pyongyang following a tourist visit. His family said he was detained on October 26 shortly before take-off from the North Korean capital.
The release came as US Vice President Joe Biden visited South Korea, the last stop on a three-country Asia tour that has already taken him to Japan and China.
In welcoming Pyongyang’s “positive decision”, Harf renewed calls for the reclusive country to free another American, Kenneth Bae.
The 45-year-old tour operator was arrested a year ago and sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor on charges of seeking to topple the government.
“We call on the DPRK once again to pardon and grant Mr Bae special amnesty and immediately release him as a humanitarian gesture so that he too can return home to his family,” she said.
“The US government will continue to work actively on his case.”
Harf thanked the Swedish government, whose embassy acted on Washington’s behalf since the United States has no formal ties with North Korea, for its “tireless efforts”.
Last week Pyongyang for the first time officially admitted holding Newman, saying he was detained for “hostile acts” after entering the country “under the guise of a tourist”.
North Korea had accused him of committing crimes both as a tourist and during his participation in the Korean War six decades ago.
The North also claimed that Newman masterminded espionage and subversive activities during the war and was involved in the killing of North Korean soldiers and innocent civilians.
Newsman, a retired financial executive who spent time in North Korea during the war, had filmed a video apology confessing to his crimes.
The North released the footage and photos showing Newman — dressed in a button-down blue shirt and light, wrinkled trousers — reading the apology, which was dated November 9 and ran to nearly 600 words.
Newman, who supervised a South Korean guerrilla unit during the war, had intended to use his trip to North Korea meet surviving soldiers and pray for the souls of the dead.
But friends and relatives have said the grandfather, who was on an organised tour, was detained due to a “misunderstanding”.
South Korean veterans who served with Newman during the war have said North Korea fabricated charges against the American.
The autocratic regime has in the past freed detained Americans after visits from high-level emissaries.
Pyongyang runs one of the world’s most secretive states and independently verifying official reports is notoriously difficult.
The North’s secretive communist regime is widely thought to govern the country with an iron fist, with frequent public executions and up to 200,000 political prisoners languishing in labour camps.