North Korea Frees 85-Year-Old U.S. Korean War Veteran

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Dec. 7 2013 10:20 AM

North Korea Frees 85-Year-Old U.S. Korean War Veteran

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Screengrab of video released by North Korea's state-run news agency showing Merrill Newman reading a supposed confession last week

Merrill Newman is going home. North Korea freed the 85-year-old U.S. veteran of the Korean War on Saturday and he flew to China in the morning to transfer a few hours later to a United Airlines flight to San Francisco, reports the Washington Post. Newman had traveled to Pyongyang in October on a 10-day tour but as he was getting ready to return home he was pulled off the plane. Pyongyang released Newman a week after he released—and read—an oddly-worded four-page apology in which he apologized for his supposed crimes during the war.

When Newman was dragged off his flight home nearly seven weeks ago, many wondered why Pyongyang took issue with this particular veteran, considering many like him had returned to North Korea on organized tours in recent years. The answer may lie in what Newman actually did during the war, when he helped train guerrillas fighting behind enemy lines against the North, which called him a war criminal, notes Reuters. And the New York Times notes Newman worked with a unit “that was particularly despised by Pyongyang for its daring raids on North Korean territory.” It is easy for Americans to forget that what they often refer to as “the forgotten war” lies at the very “foundation of North Korean national identity,” an expert tells the Associated Press.

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Vice President, who is in South Korea, welcomed Newman’s release, saying he had offered the retired veteran a ride home on Air Force Two, but he declined, noting he could get a direct flight to San Francisco from Beijing.  “I don’t blame him,” Biden said. “I’d be on that flight too.”

Although Biden said it was “positive” that North Korea released Newman, he also emphasized the United States would continue pushing for the release of Kenneth Bae, a Korean American who worked as a Christian missionary and has been held for more than a year, serving a 15-year hard labor sentence. Yet getting him released may be a tougher challenge. Bae is being accused of trying to spread Christianity, which North Korea sees as a particular threat, notes the New York Times.

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the "Today's Papers" column from 2006 to 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoliti.