WASHINGTON/SEOUL (Reuters) - The United States called on North Korea on Saturday to release an elderly U.S. military veteran held in custody since last month and who Pyongyang accused of killing civilians during the Korean War 60 years ago.
Swedish embassy officials were granted access on Saturday to visit Merrill E. Newman, the State Department said, the first access by Western officials to him since his arrest.
Newman, an 85-year old former special forces officer, was detained at the end of a trip to North Korea. Washington and Pyongyang have no diplomatic relations.
“On November 30, the DPRK permitted the Embassy of Sweden, protecting power for issues involving U.S. citizens in North Korea, consular access to U.S. citizen Merrill Newman,” a State Department official said in a statement.
“Given Mr. Newman’s advanced age and health conditions, we urge the DPRK to release Mr. Newman so he may return home and reunite with his family,” the official added, using the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The White House also urged Newman’s release in a brief statement.
Earlier on Saturday, North Korea showcased Newman as a criminal, showing a video of him making a full confession and apology as if the battles of the Korean War were still raging.
The state KCNA news agency said Newman was a mastermind of clandestine operations and had confessed to being “guilty of a long list of indelible crimes against DPRK government and Korean people.”
The State Department official said the U.S. was aware of news reports that Newman had apologized but had no other information about reasons for his detention.
In the patchy video, Newman appears composed and is shown reading aloud from a handwritten statement dated Nov 9, 2013 in a wood-paneled meeting room. At the end, he bows and places a finger print on the document.
“I realize that I cannot be forgiven for my offensives (offenses) but I beg for pardon on my knees by apologizing for my offensives (offenses) sincerely toward the DPRK government and the Korean people and I want not punish me (I wish not to be punished),” Newman, who has a heart rhythm disorder, was quoted as saying by KCNA.
One of the world’s most isolated states, North Korea nourishes memories of the 1950-53 war with South Korea and the United States to keep its impoverished people distracted and the family of founder Kim Il Sung in power. His grandson, Kim Jong Un, is North Korea’s current ruler.
It remains technically in a state of war with the South and with the United States because the 1950-53 conflict ended with a truce, not a peace treaty.
Newman, who lives in a retirement community in Palo Alto, California, was pulled off an Air Koryo flight in North Korea minutes before it was due to depart for Beijing on October 26.
His wife, Lee Newman, told CNN earlier this week that her husband went to North Korea to “put some closure” on his time during the U.S. military. It was “an important part of his life,” she said.
Newman’s family had no comment yet on the developments in North Korea on Saturday.
In Pasadena, California, a yellow ribbon was attached to the front door of Jeff Newman, Merrill Newman’s son, as a symbol the family was waiting for his return home. Jeff Newman, who previously has acted as spokesman for his family, declined to speak to a reporter on Saturday.
KCNA said in a separate report that Newman worked as an “adviser” to a partisan regiment during the Korean War as “part of the Intelligence Bureau of the Command of the U.S. Forces in the Far East.”
“He is a criminal as he masterminded espionage and subversive activities against the DPRK and in this course he was involved in killings of service personnel of the Korean People’s Army and innocent civilians,” KCNA said.
Newman, in his statement carried by KCNA, said he trained scores of men in guerrilla warfare against the North, including how to sabotage communications and transport lines and disrupt munitions supply.
“In the process of following tasks given by me, I believe they would kill more innocent people,” Newman said in the statement.
Public documents in South Korea and the United States show U.S. officers worked as advisers to groups of anti-communist partisans during the Korean War. The conflict pitted the Communist North, backed by China and the Soviet Union, against the republican South, backed by the United States.
These officers trained Korean anti-communist guerilla units to launch attacks behind enemy lines.
Newman belonged to the 8240th Unit, nicknamed the ‘White Tigers’, said guerrillas who were trained by him.
“We co-operated and helped with each other and fought,” Kim Hyeon who lives south of Seoul said in an interview with Reuters. Kim remained in touch with Newman after the war and visited him with his family in 2004.
“In the past we couldn’t even speak up (about our activities,)” said Kim, who served as a staff officer of the Kuwol Regiment of partisans, referring to the clandestine operations it conducted under Newman’s supervision.
KCNA gave no indication of what might happen to Newman.
His family has appealed to the North Korean government for his release, saying they believed “some dreadful misunderstanding” was behind the detention.
“If Newman was with the partisans that may explain his detention,” Bruce Cumings, an expert on the Korean War at the University of Chicago, told Reuters. “The North Koreans would treat someone like that with much more disdain than a regular line soldier or officer in the American forces.”
After the war, Newman worked as a manufacturing and business executive before retiring in 1984, according to a biography of him in a February 2012 newsletter from Channing House, his retirement home.
Washington has had little public comment on Newman’s case. Until Saturday, the State Department had declined to provide any details other than confirming the detention of a U.S. citizen.
North Korea is also holding another American, Christian missionary Kenneth Bae of Korean decent, arrested last year and sentenced in May to 15 years of hard labor on charges of committing hostile acts against the state. The White House also expressed concern for Bae and renewed its call for his release on Saturday.
Additional reporting by Ju-min Park, James Pearson, Roberta Rampton and Dana Feldman; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Neil Fullick and Frances Kerry