How North Korean Paranoia Entrapped an 85-Year-Old American

Trauma and fears of espionage run deep in Pyongyang.

By , a Taipei-based nonresident senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s U.S.-China Institute.
Merrill Newman (top left) with some of the "Kuwol Comrades" he worked with during the Korean War.
Merrill Newman (top left) with some of the "Kuwol Comrades" he worked with during the Korean War.
Merrill Newman (top left) with some of the "Kuwol Comrades" he worked with during the Korean War. Courtesy of Merrill Newman/Foreign Policy Illustration

In October 2013, Merrill Newman, an 85-year-old grandfather from California, was taken off a plane at the Pyongyang airport at the end of a weeklong tourist trip to North Korea. He was detained, and his plight soon involved the State Department, the international news media, and, by all accounts, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un himself. But for most of the 42 days that Newman, who died this January, was held in Pyongyang in the fall of 2013, nobody outside North Korea knew why.

The answers lay in Newman’s past—and in North Korea’s acute historical memory and still-present paranoia. That same fear helps drive its quest for security today, recently demonstrated by yet another series of missile tests.

Newman was a Korean War veteran and retired finance executive. He was an avid sailor and scuba diver with a taste for adventure. He had decided to visit North Korea while breakfasting with a friend at his retirement community in Palo Alto. Curious to see the country where he’d served, and aware that other veterans of the war had visited without incident, he contacted Juche Travel Services, a London-based agency specializing in North Korea tourism. That’s when Newman saw Mount Kuwol listed on the company’s website.

In October 2013, Merrill Newman, an 85-year-old grandfather from California, was taken off a plane at the Pyongyang airport at the end of a weeklong tourist trip to North Korea. He was detained, and his plight soon involved the State Department, the international news media, and, by all accounts, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un himself. But for most of the 42 days that Newman, who died this January, was held in Pyongyang in the fall of 2013, nobody outside North Korea knew why.

The answers lay in Newman’s past—and in North Korea’s acute historical memory and still-present paranoia. That same fear helps drive its quest for security today, recently demonstrated by yet another series of missile tests.

Newman was a Korean War veteran and retired finance executive. He was an avid sailor and scuba diver with a taste for adventure. He had decided to visit North Korea while breakfasting with a friend at his retirement community in Palo Alto. Curious to see the country where he’d served, and aware that other veterans of the war had visited without incident, he contacted Juche Travel Services, a London-based agency specializing in North Korea tourism. That’s when Newman saw Mount Kuwol listed on the company’s website.

During the Korean War, Newman was a member of the United Nations Partisan Infantry Korea (UNPIK), a top-secret precursor of today’s U.S. special operations forces that combined South Korean and American forces. They ran several partisan groups behind enemy lines, including one known as the “White Tigers”—a name that would eventually be reused for South Korea’s own counterterrorism unit. Newman’s assignment was to advise anti-communist Koreans operating behind North Korean lines around Mount Kuwol, which lies south of Pyongyang. The guerrillas were known as the Kuwol Comrades.

In South Korea, the Kuwol Comrades have long been revered as heroes, with their exploits even the subject of a popular film called BloodSoaked Mount Kuwol. Newman, although he had visited South Korea many years after the war, apparently did not realize that, for precisely this reason, the guerrillas were viewed as the worst kind of traitors and counter-revolutionaries.

And while ordinary Korean War veterans had visited without incident, North Korea reserved a particular vendetta for U.S. infiltrators. Both UNPIK and the CIA ran numerous missions into the North, mostly unsuccessfully, and sometimes disastrously. The CIA’s efforts lasted beyond the war, with hundreds of CIA-trained South Korean agents parachuted into the North in the 1950s. Almost all of them were killed.

The infiltrators achieved little, but they were easy targets for the widespread anger at the United States in North Korea, where 85 percent of the country’s buildings were destroyed by U.S. airpower between 1950 and 1953. Approximately 1.5 million North Koreans were killed in the war. They also coincided with a perennial fear in communist states of saboteurs and spies, which, as in the Soviet Union and China, led to persistent purges inside North Korea. While the rhetoric of fifth columnists was wielded for brutal political ends, it was also sincerely believed and feared by many in Pyongyang. The passage of time had not dimmed the North’s hate and suspicion of potential infiltrators.

On the Juche Travel Services website, though, Mount Kuwol was described as a tourist attraction. For Newman, the possibility of visiting a place so linked to his youthful wartime experience was an enticing one. The travel agency told him it would not be a problem. At the time, North Korea tourism for Westerners was a small but highly prosperous industry, charging large amounts to Americans and Europeans curious about one of the most closed-off societies on earth. Travel agencies usually pre-screened visitors, mostly concerned about journalists or government officials who might be targeted or put their North Korean guides at risk. But an 85-year-old retiree seemed unlikely to trigger any buttons.

Newman and his retirement home friend Bob Hamdrla spent a fascinating but largely uneventful week in Pyongyang, visiting the usual tourist attractions such as Mansu Hill, where two giant bronze statues, one of Kim Il Sung and one of Kim Jong Il, look out over the Pyongyang skyline.

As their visit to Mount Kuwol approached, Newman wondered aloud to his two female guides whether there might be any soldiers from the war still alive in the area, perhaps even people he had known. Suddenly, the Kuwol visit was canceled. The night before his scheduled departure, security agents brusquely questioned Newman about the Korean War. And then he was taken off his plane and confined in a Pyongyang hotel room.

North Korea’s fear of infiltrators was undimmed by the years—in part because of its own constant attacks on the South. Pyongyang has run numerous infiltration missions, most infamously the attack on Seoul’s Blue House in an attempt to kill then-President Park Chung-hee in 1968. Attempts still continue—though some supposed attackers are in fact defectors, or take the opportunity to defect.

But the North’s attacks also prompted South Korean retaliation, especially after 1968. According to South Korean veterans, over 13,000 South Korean soldiers were dispatched to the North by the South Korean dictatorships between the late 1960s and 1980s—of whom 7,729 never made it home. Even though the missions—at least as far as public information is available—dropped dramatically after South Korea’s transition to democracy, they remained a constant of Pyongyang’s propaganda.

Even in the context of North Korea’s long-term worries, though, believing an 85-year-old was a spy—and that he would openly chat about his plans with his guides—was quite a leap. “If you are that paranoid,” observed Evans Revere, a long-time State Department Korea expert, “it is perfectly understandable they reacted the way they did, because they really felt that somehow this sickly 85-year-old man was a threat to their security. Only in North Korea could a guy like that be considered a threat to anyone’s security.”

And yet Newman’s detention was, by North Korean standards, relatively cozy. Rather than being sent to a prison or labor camp, he was interrogated in his hotel. Nurses and doctors constantly checked his blood pressure, apparently concerned about the consequences if anything happened to him. The interrogations were conducted by a man who always sat with his back to the window, in silhouette, so Newman could not make out his features.

Over and over, the interrogator made the same threat.

“If you do not tell us everything, and apologize for your illegal acts, you will not be able to return to your home country.”

It was clear from the questions, which focused on Newman’s wartime experience with the Kuwol partisans, that the North Koreans had convinced themselves he had returned to activate a geriatric spy network. They demanded information about the structure, organization, and people involved. But despite his age and fragile health—he suffered from heart problems and high blood pressure—Newman was more than a match for his interrogator. Pressed for details, he simply made up names, places, and descriptions.

On another occasion, his captors discovered three books on North Korea on his Kindle and demanded he delete them. When Newman said that would require getting on the internet, his guard insisted again. “You go figure out how to delete them without going online,” Newman retorted. The guard grudgingly allowed him to keep the Kindle.

When first confined at Pyongyang’s Yanggakdo Hotel, Newman also had the presence of mind to pick up the phone and, to his surprise, get through to his home in California. He was able to tell his wife, Lee, that he had been detained before the line was cut. Newman’s family quickly asked the State Department for help. But as the weeks went by with no news, they became increasingly frustrated. At one point, out of desperation, they even contacted eccentric former basketball star Dennis Rodman, who had famously visited Pyongyang and befriended Kim Jong Un. But Rodman was planning another trip and did not want to get involved. Then the San Jose Mercury News made Newman’s plight public. Overnight, his case became a top news story in the United States, with reporters calling at all hours and satellite trucks parked outside his retirement home.

With no fresh information, the family passed a bleak Thanksgiving. But a few days later, the North Koreans released a video of Newman reading a “confession” that had been written for him.

“During the Korean War, I have been guilty of a long list of indelible crimes. … I committed indelible offensive acts against the DPRK government and Korean people. Although 60 years have gone by, I came to DPRK on the excuse of the tour. … Shamelessly I had a plan to meet any surviving soldiers. I realize that I cannot be forgiven for my offensives but I beg for pardon on my knees. … If I go back to USA, I will tell the true features of the DPRK.”

Korean War veteran Merrill Newman (left), accompanied by his wife Lee and son Jeff, speaks to the press after arriving at San Francisco International Airport on Dec. 7, 2013 following his release from detention in North Korea.
Korean War veteran Merrill Newman (left), accompanied by his wife Lee and son Jeff, speaks to the press after arriving at San Francisco International Airport on Dec. 7, 2013 following his release from detention in North Korea.

Korean War veteran Merrill Newman (left), accompanied by his wife Lee and son Jeff, speaks to the press after arriving at San Francisco International Airport on Dec. 7, 2013 following his release from detention in North Korea. SUSANA BATES/AFP via Getty Images

To signal he was being coerced, Newman went out of his way to emphasize the English grammar errors in the script he had been given—something that was not lost on his family, who finally had confirmation he was still alive.

But another week passed with no further sign of movement. Getting someone senior to sign off on letting Newman go seemed a remote prospect. But on Saturday, Dec. 7, Newman was suddenly informed he was being released. He was told how close he had come to being sentenced to a long prison term and given specific talking points the North Koreans wanted him to stress in the U.S.

“I was supposed to say, I apologize for this, this, and this, and thank the government for releasing me,” Newman told me when I interviewed him in 2014. Arriving home, Newman said nothing.

There is no way to know for sure what combination of factors triggered Newman’s detention. The most likely explanation is that his offhand comment to his minders about Mount Kuwol—which were clearly reported to more senior officials—aroused the suspicion of the security apparatus. “I said, ‘If I get there, I’d like to meet any living soldiers, and if you can help me do it, I’d appreciate it,’” he recalled later. “It was probably a dumb thing to do. It was clearly my error to indicate I’d like to make contact with any North Korean survivors.” North Korean security officials may well have concluded that it was safer to detain him than face the consequences, from their own bosses, of allowing someone associated with the hated Kuwol Comrades to leave.

But what apparently began as a cover-your-ass decision by midlevel security officials became a much bigger issue, impacting the North’s already frosty relations with the United States. At some level, it seems likely that the North Koreans may have recognized that the sinister retiree network didn’t exist. But in communist dictatorships, admitting to a mistake is not only embarrassing for the system but can also damage everyone involved. Even in North Korea’s then far more open neighbor China, when a group of 20 South Africa, British, and Indian charity workers were arrested for “watching propaganda videos”—which turned out to be videos of Sufi dances—in 2015 by overzealous local police, it took a week to free them from jail, whereupon they were deported without apology. And the case of the detainees known as the “two Michaels”—Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who faced spurious charges of spying and were held as hostages for three years in retaliation for the detention in Canada of a Chinese executive facing extradition to the United States on criminal charges—further highlights the growing risks that seemingly innocent travelers can face in such countries.

But by North Korean standards, Newman’s detention was resolved relatively quickly. Other American detainees have experienced far longer trials, usually lasting years before they were released. In 2017, Otto Warmbier, an American student arrested for tearing down a propaganda banner, was sent back to the United States in a coma from unknown causes, a year and a half after his arrest—and he died a few days later. In a case of such sensitivity, though, the final OK for Newman to leave probably came directly from Kim. Remarkably, the release came without—at least publicly—any of the small U.S. concessions or highly publicized visits that usually help free detainees. The confession and self-criticism, a standard demand in communist states, was all that was needed.

As for Newman himself, he readily acknowledged how naive he was in not realizing that the war, for the North Koreans, had not ended.

“After 60 years,” he observed following his release, “my assumption was that, like Germany or Japan or Vietnam, people forget. That was my mistake. It’s not true. The North Koreans still think the war is on.”

That was the case in 2013. Nearly a decade later, as Pyongyang engages in a new round of provocative missile tests, it’s clear that remains the case today. If North Korea, which has cut itself off from the world due to COVID-19, eventually decides to allow tourists to return, Newman’s experience will remain a cautionary tale.

Mike Chinoy is a Taipei-based nonresident senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s U.S.-China Institute. He is the author of the forthcoming Assignment China: An Oral History of American Journalists in the People’s Republic.

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