December 3, 2013

U.S. vet detained in North Korea oversaw guerrilla group

Merrill Newman supervised a group of South Korean fighters hated and feared by the North during the Korean War.

By Hyung-jin Kim And Foster Klug
The Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea – Six decades before he went to North Korea as a curious tourist, Merrill Newman supervised a group of South Korean guerrillas during the Korean War who were perhaps the most hated and feared fighters in the North, former members of the group say.

click image to enlarge

FILE - This 2005 file photo provided by the Palo Alto Weekly shows Merrill Newman, a retired finance executive and Red Cross volunteer, in Palo Alto, Calif. North Korea state media say U.S. tourist Newman, who has been detained for more than a month, has apologized for alleged crimes during the Korean War and for “hostile acts” against the state during a recent trip. There was no direct word from 85-year old Newman and his alleged apology released Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, couldn’t be independently confirmed. Pyongyang, North Korea, has been accused of previously coercing statements from detainees.

The Associated Press

Some of those guerrillas, interviewed this week by The Associated Press, remember Newman as a handsome, thin American lieutenant who got them rice, clothes and weapons during the later stages of the 1950-53 war, but largely left the fighting to them.

North Korea apparently remembered him, too.

The 85-year-old war veteran has been detained in Pyongyang since being forced off a plane set to leave the country Oct. 26 after a 10-day trip. He appeared this weekend on North Korean state TV apologizing for alleged wartime crimes in what was widely seen as a coerced statement.

“Why did he go to North Korea?” asked Park Boo Seo, a former member of the Kuwol partisan unit, which is still loathed in Pyongyang and glorified in Seoul for the damage it inflicted on the North during the war. “The North Koreans still gnash their teeth at the Kuwol unit.”

Park and several other former guerrillas said they recognized Newman from his past visits to Seoul in 2003 and 2010 – when they ate raw fish and drank soju, Korean liquor – and from the TV footage, which was also broadcast in South Korea.

Newman was scheduled to visit South Korea to meet former Kuwol fighters following his North Korea trip. Park said about 30 elderly former guerrillas, some carrying bouquets of flowers, waited in vain for several hours for him at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, on Oct. 27 before news of his detention was released.

Newman has yet to tell his side of the story, aside from the televised statement, and his family hasn’t responded to requests for comment on his wartime activities. Jeffrey Newman has previously said that his father, an avid traveler and retired finance executive from California, had always wanted to return to the country where he fought during the Korean War.

Newman’s detention is just the most recent point of tension on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea has detained another American for more than a year, and there’s still wariness in Seoul and Washington after North Korea’s springtime threats of nuclear war and vows to restart its nuclear fuel production.

According to his televised statement, Newman’s alleged crimes include training guerrillas whose attacks continued even after the war ended, and ordering operations that led to the death of dozens of North Korean soldiers and civilians. He also said in the statement he attempted to meet surviving Kuwol members.

Former guerrillas in Seoul said Newman served as an adviser for Kuwol, one of dozens of such partisan groups established by the U.S.-military during the Korean War. They have a book about the unit that Newman signed, praising Kuwol and writing that he was “proud to have served with you.” The book includes a photo of Newman that appears to be taken within the last 10-15 years.

But the guerrillas say most of the North’s charges were fabricated or exaggerated.

Newman oversaw guerrilla actions and gave the fighters advice, but he wasn’t involved in day-to-day operations, according to the former rank-and-file members and analysts. He also gave them rice, clothes and weapons from the U.S. military when they obtained key intelligence and captured North Korean and Chinese troops. All Kuwol guerrillas came to South Korea shortly after the war’s end and haven’t infiltrated the North since then, they say, so there are no surviving members in North Korea.

(Continued on page 2)

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