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US family asks North Korea for release of war veteran

© Photo: AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-11-24

The California family of a war veteran held by North Korea since October appealed to the Pyongyang government on Friday for his safe return, calling his detention during a sightseeing trip a "dreadful misunderstanding".

The family of an 85-year-old veteran being detained in North Korea implored authorities on Friday to let him return home to California and end what his wife called a "dreadful misunderstanding".

Alicia Newman said that relatives of her husband, Merrill Newman, have had no word on the state of his health, whether medications sent to him were received or why he was detained.

Meanwhile, North Korean officials told the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang that they were holding an American but did not confirm it was Newman, who was pulled from a plane on October 26 while preparing to leave the country after a 10-day sightseeing tour.

The Swedish Embassy is negotiating on a daily basis on behalf of Newman because the US has no diplomatic ties to North Korea, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington.

"The family feels there has been some dreadful misunderstanding leading to his detention and asks that the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] work to settle this issue quickly and to return this 85-year-old grandfather to his anxious, concerned family," Ms. Newman said in a statement.

The statement was issued through the retirement home where the Newmans live in the upscale northern California town of Palo Alto.

Experts on North Korea expressed surprise that an elderly American on a sightseeing trip – one of hundreds of US citizens who visit the country every year – would be singled out for detention simply for having served in the Korean War.

Attention-seeking?

One expert 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 US 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.

Mr Newman's detention came a day after he and his tour guide had been interviewed by North Korean authorities at a meeting in which his service as an infantry officer during the Korean War was discussed, his son told CNN on Wednesday.

Until his planned departure, Newman's trip had seemed positive, his wife said in her statement.

It was a trip "he had looked forward to making for a long while," she said. "The postcards sent to his friends while on the trip described good times, good weather and knowledgeable guides."

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

Appearing briefly outside his home in the Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena on Friday, the son 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.

The US government has not directly confirmed the detention of Merrill Newman, citing privacy laws.

The US signalled 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 there since November 2012.

An estimated 1,200 to 1,500 Americans per year visit North Korea, said Andrea Lee, chief executive of Uri Tours, a New Jersey-based company that organises tours to the country.

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.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)

Date created : 2013-11-23

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