An elderly grandfather from Palo Alto, Calif. has been detained in North Korea for more than three weeks.
Sources say North Korean authorities removed Merrill Newman, 85, from the plane on which he was to leave the country on Oct. 26. Newman and a neighbor had visited North Korea — with which the United States has no diplomatic relations — via a tour business based in Beijing.
Neither North Korea nor the U.S. State Department ever formally announced Newman's detention, and his family has refused to speak about it.
“We are aware of reports that a U.S. citizen was detained in North Korea,” a State Department official replied via email after this newspaper inquired about Newman.
“There is no greater priority for us than the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad,” the email went on. “We have no additional information to share at this time.”
The State Department on Tuesday issued an updated travel advisory for North Korea, recommending against all travel by U.S. citizens. The advisory makes no mention of Newman, but replaced a warning issued Oct. 1 — before Newman's trip — in part to add that the State Department has received reports of North Korea “arbitrarily detaining U.S. citizens and not allowing them to depart the country.”
Newman retired in 1984 after a career as a finance executive for tech companies including Convergent Technologies and Shugart Associates.
He earned a bachelor's degree in zoology from the University of California-Berkeley in 1950 before joining the military and serving as an infantry officer during the Korean War. After the war, he earned a master's degree in education from Stanford University while teaching math, science and swimming at high schools in Berkeley and Livermore, Calif.
The Palo Alto chapter of the American Red Cross recognized him in 2008 for 50 years of volunteer service; he served on the chapter's board for decades, and also taught CPR and first aid through the organization.
It's relatively uncommon for Americans to visit North Korea, even more uncommon for them to be detained, and extremely uncommon for that detention to go on in secret for so long.
Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American Christian missionary and U.S. citizen who has been living in China for the past seven years, was arrested a year ago while leading a tour group in North Korea and now is the longest-serving U.S. detainee in North Korea since the end of the Korean War. Accused of planning a religious coup, he was sentenced in April to 15 years of hard labor; his deteriorating health prompted his transfer from a prison camp to a hospital, where his mother was allowed to visit him last month.