SAN FRANCISCO -- An 85-year-old American war veteran detained for more than a month in North Korea arrived in the United States on Saturday, a day after he was unexpectedly released by Pyongyang for “humanitarian” reasons.
"I'm delighted to be home," Merrill Newman said in a brief statement to reporters after arriving in San Francisco on a flight from Beijing shortly after 9 a.m. local time (noon ET). "It's been a great homecoming and I'm tired, but ready to be with my family now -- and thank you all for the support we got and I very much appreciate it."
He also thanked the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, North Korea, and the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for helping to secure his release.
Newman, who was accompanied by his wife, Lee, and son Jeff, was asked as he walked away if he would consider going back to North Korea. "Probably not," he replied.
The Korean War vet, who suffers from a heart ailment and is in need of medication, is a retiree from Palo Alto, Calif., about 30 miles south of San Francisco.
Newman, who had been visiting North Korea as a tourist, was held in Pyongyang since officials took him off an Air Koryo plane that was scheduled to leave the country on Oct. 26.
Noah Berger / Reuters
Merrill Newman, an 85-year-old retired American soldier freed from North Korea, arrives at San Francisco International Airport on Sautrday.
Bob Hamrdla, a neighbor of Newman's who accompanied Newman on the trip but was allowed to leave on the flight, reacted to news of the homecoming in a brief message left on his voicemail. "I am totally thrilled to hear of Merrill's release, with an exclamation mark," he said.
The official Korean Central News Agency said that Newman was freed after he apologized
"Taking into consideration his admittance of the act committed by him on the basis of his wrong understanding, apology made by him for it, his sincere repentance of it and his advanced age and health condition, the above-said institution deported him from the country from a humanitarian viewpoint," the North's official Korean Central News Agency wrote on Saturday.
A statement published by KCNA last week said that during a recent visit to the country, Newman attempted to meet with surviving soldiers he had trained during the Korean War to fight North Korea, admitted he was "a criminal" who was involved in the killing of civilians during the 1950-53 Korean War, and carried an e-book criticizing North Korea.
The U.S. State Department welcomed the decision Friday, saying in a statement: "We are pleased that Mr. Merrill Newman has been allowed to depart the DPRK and re-join his family. We welcome the DPRK's decision to release him."
DPRK is short for the North's official name: the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Vice President Joe Biden, who received the news of Newman’s release while on a visit in South Korea, said of the North, "It's a positive thing they've done.”
The vice president added that he had offered to fly Newman home on his plane.
“I offered him a ride home on Air Force Two, but as he pointed out, there's a direct flight to San Francisco, so I don't blame him, I'd be on that flight too," Biden told reporters.
Biden added that the U.S. will continue to demand for the release of Kenneth Bae, another American who is also being detained in the Asian nation. Bae, a Christian missionary of Korean decent, was arrested last year and sentenced in May to 15 years of hard labor on charges of committing hostile acts against the state.
In order to secure Newman's release, the U.S. State Department worked with Swedish officials who represent American interests in North Korea. The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, so Sweden handles consular issues for the United States in the Asian nation.
Eric Baculinao of NBC News and The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
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First published December 7 2013, 9:30 AM