(Reuters) - The California family of a Korean War veteran held in North Korean custody since last month appealed to the Pyongyang government on Friday for his safe return, calling his detention during a sightseeing trip a “dreadful misunderstanding.”
Echoing comments from their son earlier in the day, Alicia Newman also said that relatives of her 85-year-old husband, Merrill Newman, have had no word on the state of his health, whether medications sent to him were received or why he was detained.
She said her husband was seated on a flight on the last day of his 10-day trip, October 26, waiting to take off, when North Korean authorities boarded and took him away.
“The family feels there has been some dreadful misunderstanding leading to his detention and asks that the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) work to settle this issue quickly and to return this 85-year-old grandfather to his anxious, concerned family,” said Alicia Newman, who goes by the first name Lee.
The statement was issued through the retirement home where the Newmans live in the upscale northern California town of Palo Alto.
Their son, Jeff Newman, told Reuters the family remained concerned about his father’s health, saying there had been no communication with him since he was taken.
The son’s comments came as a State Department official in Washington told reporters that North Korea had confirmed through diplomatic channels its detention of a U.S. citizen, but the official did not identify the person.
Experts on North Korea expressed surprise that an elderly American on a sightseeing trip - one of hundreds of U.S. citizens who visit that country every year - would be singled out for detention simply for having served in the Korean War.
One suggested that North Korea was seeking to grab the international spotlight at a time when attention was focused on talks with Iran, perhaps as a way to manipulate the United States or China into providing food aid for the country as winter approached.
“It’s hostage-taking,” said Steven Weber, an international affairs specialist at the University of California at Berkeley.
The father’s detention came a day after he and his tour guide had been interviewed by North Korean authorities at a meeting in which Newman’s service as an infantry officer during the Korean War was discussed, the son told CNN on Wednesday.
The elder Newman was in North Korea on a tourist visa, family members said.
It was a trip “he had looked forward to making for a long while,” his wife said in her statement. “The postcards sent to his friends while on the trip described good times, good weather and knowledgeable guides.”
Lee Newman said previously her husband was removed from an Asiana Airlines flight, though an official for South Korea’s No. 2 carrier said it did not have “any route to Pyongyang in North Korea.”
Jeff Newman has said accounts of his father’s disappearance were based on details relayed to him through another American resident at his father’s retirement home who was traveling with him. That man, Bob Hamrdla, is back in California.
Appearing briefly outside his home in the Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena on Friday, the son told reporters the family has “been in regular contact with the State Department since the beginning of the detention but we don’t have any new information now.” He declined to elaborate.
Newman’s detention has dismayed people close to him and his family.
“He’s a wonderful person, a very gentle and mild-mannered person,” said Douglas Adams, a member of The Fellowship Forum, a men’s club to which Newman belonged. “I don’t have the faintest idea of why he was detained.”
Mary Britton, wife of club member Melvin Britton, said she saw Newman as “adventuresome” from what she knew of him.
“He was on his sailboat in San Diego for a period of time,” Britton said.
Britton’s children went to high school with Newman’s children, she said, adding Lee and her were members of a Palo Alto gardening club and attended exercise class together.
The U.S. government has not directly confirmed the detention of Merrill Newman, citing privacy laws, but State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Friday: “Our Swedish protecting power has been informed of the detention of a U.S. citizen” in North Korea.
“We are working in close coordination with representatives of the Embassy of Sweden to resolve this issue,” Psaki said, adding that daily requests by the Swedes for access to the detainee have yet to be granted.
The United States signaled through a special representative in Beijing on Thursday that the Pyongyang government could improve its strained relations with Washington by releasing any Americans held in North Korea.
Korean-American Christian missionary Kenneth Bae has been detained by the Pyongyang government since November 2012.
An estimated 1,200 to 1,500 Americans a year visit North Korea, said Andrea Lee, chief executive of Uri Tours, a New Jersey-based company that organizes tours to the country.
Daniel Sneider, an expert on the foreign policy of Korea and Japan at Stanford University, said he had never heard of North Korean authorities detaining a vacationing American.
“We don’t know why they did this or what provoked them to do it. All we know is that it’s unusual, even by North Korean standards,” Sneider said.
Sneider said tourist trips to North Korea are “very tightly controlled” affairs typically consisting of visits “to a certain set of monuments and museums and statues.”
North Korea has opened up travel to foreigners during the past few years to generate revenue by appealing to an exotic travel market of tourists seeking out-of-the-way destinations.
Sneider also said that even if Newman had spoken about serving in the Korean War, that would not necessarily explain why he was detained, given North Korea’s generally indifferent attitude toward American Korean War veterans.
“It’s not unprecedented for people who have served in the Korean War to have gone to North Korea” as tourists, Sneider said.
Additional reporting by Leslie Wroughton in Washington, Laila Kearney in Palo Alto, Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Writing by Steve Gorman and Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Paul Thomasch, Gunna Dickson, Andrew Hay, Eric Walsh and Bill Trott