Son of U.S. man held in North Korea says has not heard from father

Reuters
Jeffrey Newman comes out of his home to make a brief comment about his father, Merrill Newman, being detained in North Korea, in California
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Jeffrey Newman comes out of his home to make a brief comment about his father, Merrill Newman, an 85-year-old …

By Dana Feldman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The son of an 85-year-old California retiree and Korean War veteran who was detained by North Korean authorities last month during a trip to the reclusive Asian nation said on Friday he has had no communication with his father since then.

Jeff Newman also told Reuters in an interview his family remained concerned about the health of his father, Merrill Newman, and does not know whether heart medication sent to North Korea on his behalf had reached him.

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 did not identify the individual being held.

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 son, who lives in the Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena, has said the elder Newman was on an airplane on the last day of his trip, October 26, waiting to take off when North Korean authorities boarded and took him away.

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 Merrill Newman's military service during the Korean War was discussed, the son told CNN on Wednesday.

An infantry officer during the Korean War, the elder Newman resides in the upscale Northern California community of Palo Alto and had gone to North Korea on a tourist visa for a trip that his son said was supposed to last nine or 10 days.

Jeff Newman has said his account of his father's disappearance was based on details relayed to him through another American resident at his father's retirement home who was traveling with him at the time. That man, Bob Hamrdla, is back in California.

'NO COMMUNICATION'

Appearing briefly outside his home on Friday, Jeff Newman 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.

Asked in a separate telephone interview on Friday whether he had received any word from his father since he was detained, Jeff Newman, a Los Angeles real estate executive, told Reuters: "There has been no communication."

"We remain concerned about his condition. We're worried about his health, and we're anxious for him to come home," he said.

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 North Korea.

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 an American tourist on vacation.

"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 his time served 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 and Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Paul Thomasch, Gunna Dickson, Andrew Hay and Eric Walsh)

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