85 year old U.S. Korean War veteran detained in North Korea- son says

85 year old U.S. Korean War veteran detained in North Korea- son says

Photo story (Clockwise from top left): (1) 2005 photograph of U.S. Korean War veteran Merrill Newman (2) Merrill’s friend Bob Hamrdla was allowed to return to the United States (3) 44 year old Korean-American, Christian missionary and tour operator, Kanneth Bae has been detained in North Korea since last year and sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor (4) World’s youngest head of state, 30 year old supreme leader of North Korea Kim Jong Un, son of late Kim Jong-il; (5) Crew of an US M24 Chaffee tank along the Naktong river front on 17th August 1950. (6) US marines fighting Chinese troops in Chosin Reservoir, North Korea on 26th December 1950.

The troubled relationship between United States and North Korea developed mainly during the Korean War fought from 25th June 1950 to 27th July 1953. It was a war between Republic of Korea aka South Korea and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea aka North Korea. A democratic South Korea was backed by UN, US and UK. And communist North Korea was backed by China and USSR. Like the Vietnam War, Korean War was also a result of political divisions at the end of WWII. Both Vietnam and Korean War reflected the US policy of resisting the expansion of communism around the world.

For thousands of years Korea had to fight off the Chinese and Japanese invasions. History of Korea’s struggle against invasions dates back to 6th century when Korean Kingdom of Goguryeo fought off and crushed massive Chinese invasions between 598 and 614. Korean naval commander Yi Sun-Shin is remembered for his 23 naval victories against the invading Japanese Navy between 1592 and 1598 during the Japanese invasion of Korea where Yi Sun used improvised turtle ships. Amidst political turmoil Japan’s colonizing efforts were successful as the Japan Korea amity treaty was signed on 27th February 1876. In 1910 Japan declared Korea as a protectorate of Imperial Japanese Empire and ruled Korea until the end of WWII.

After the surrender of Japan on 2nd September 1945, the Korean peninsula was divided along the 38th parallel by the US administrators. US forces were occupying the southern half and the Soviet forces were in control of the Northern half.  After the failure to hold free elections in Korean peninsula in 1948, North Korea formed a communist regime and the South Korea formed a right wing administration. Tensions between the North and South intensified and North Korea invaded South Korea on 25th June 1950. Soviet Union boycotted UN Security Council in 1950. And in the absence of Soviet veto, military intervention in Korea was authorized by U.S. and other countries.

In the war, South Korea had the support of total 972,214 troopers of which 63.87% or 602,902 were South Korea’s, 33.63% or 326, 863 were United States’ and 1.50% or 14,198 were UK’s. North Korea had the support of total 1,642,600 troopers of which 82.19% or 1,350,000 were China’s, 16.23% or 266,600 were North Korea’s and 1.58% or 26,000 were Soviet Union’s. South Korean alliance lost around 178,426 soldiers, of which 77.29% or 137,899 were South Korean soldiers and 18.88% or 33,686 were American soldiers. North Korean alliance lost around 615,282 soldiers, of which 65.01% or 400,000 were Chinese Soldiers, 34.94% or 215,000 were North Korean soldiers and 0.05% or 282 were Russian soldiers. Around 375,599 South Korean civilians and 1,550,000 North Korean civilians were also killed in the war.

By 1951, it was a stalemate situation as both sides managed to exchange little territory along the 38th parallel. On 27th July, 1953, an armistice agreement was signed to end fighting and to continue peace talks between South Korea, North Korea, United States and China. But there was no peace treaty. Though North Korea claimed that it won the Korean War, the war is considered as a military victory for the United States; because the objective of containing communism at the 38th parallel was achieved.

After the war, in 1953, United States and South Korea enacted a Mutual Defense Treaty. 28,500 U.S. soldiers, airmen, marines and sailors are stationed in South Korea Since 1st July 1957 as part of the U.S. policy of balancing power in the Asia Pacific. North Korea continued hostile activities against South Korea and United States since the Korean War. In recent years, North Korea’s hostile behavior includes testing of three nuclear weapons, development of missiles with thousands of miles range and ongoing threats of striking South Korea and the United States.

Online edition of eminent American news media, Fox News reported that 85 year old American Korean War veteran, Merrill Newman, was detained in North Korea on 26th October 2013 as he sat in an airplane about to leave the country. His son Jeffry Newman disclosed the incident on 20th November 2013.

Jeffry said that his father was traveling with a friend, Bob Hamrdla on a nine day trip to visit North Korea, where Merrill spent three years as an infantry officer in Korean War. Merrill was also a retired finance executive and a volunteer of Red Cross. Bob Hamrdla was a former Stanford University professor. They planned to go together on the North Korean adventure in mid October. Hamrdla was allowed to return to United States. Jeffrey also said that the North Korea trip had been a lifelong dream of his father. U.S. Korean War veteran Merrill was a constant traveler and according to Jeffrey, Merrill even took Korean language lessons before leaving.

Jeffrey said that he had received post cards sent from North Korea by his father during the trip which said that everything was going well. According to Hamrdla, Merrill came away with some jittery feelings after meeting the North Korean officials.

At his home in Pasadena city in California, Jeffrey told the Associated Press that a North Korean officer in uniform came on the plane and wanted to see Merrill’s passport and was then asked to leave the plane with the stewardess. ‘And that is the last time he was seen’ he said. Hamrdla said that the incident had to be ‘a terrible misunderstanding’ and he also hoped that the North Koreans would consider Merrill to return home on humanitarian grounds.

North Korea’s state media has not commented on the incident and the U.S. State Department is yet to confirm the detention. U.S. has no formal diplomatic relations with North Korea. Sweden mediates as the protecting power of the U.S. interests in North Korea. Merrill Newman’s family has been working through the Swedish Embassy and U.S. State Department officials to ensure Merrill’s freedom. Merrill’s medication was delivered to the Foreign Affairs Ministry of North Korea through the Swedish ambassador. Whether the veteran received it remains unclear.

Without confirming the veteran’s confinement, on 19th November 2013, the U.S. State Department issued a strict travel warning for North Korea. Americans were told not to travel to North Korea under any circumstances. Since 1995, the U.S. State Department had been allowing U.S. tourism in North Korea but with a precaution to the Americans about the risks of visiting the ‘unpredictable’ country. At least six other Americans had been detained in North Korea since 2009. Four of them were charged with entering North Korea illegally, other two were arrested on other charges. Another U.S. citizen, a 44 year old Korean-American Christian missionary and tour operator, Kanneth Bae has been detained in North Korea since last year. He had been charged with planning a religious coup and was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor.

Since 2011, Merrill Newman had been living in a retirement complex in Palo Alto with his wife, Lee. Jeffrey said that his father was also a big part of the nearby Stanford University alumni community. He also hoped that the North Korean authorities would release veteran Merrill Newman after realizing that all they have is ‘a grandfather, an elderly traveler with a heart condition’. Jeffrey said ‘All we want as family is to have my kids’ grandfather, my father returned to California so he can be with the family for Thanksgiving’.

Video story: Jeffrey, Son of the 85 year old U.S. Korean War veteran Merrill Newman describing the details of his father’s detainment incident to CNN

Mohammad Rafi Saad

Mohammad Rafi Saad is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE