North Korea on Saturday released a video showing detained U.S. citizen Merrill E. Newman reading an apology for "hostile acts" against the state – a move that prompted new calls from the U.S. for his release.
A statement published by the North's official Korean Central News Agency said that during a recent visit to the country, the 85-year-old war veteran attempted to meet with any 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 was carrying an e-book criticizing North Korea.
Newman "masterminded espionage and subversive activities against the DPRK and in this course he was involved in killings of service personnel of the Korean People's Army and innocent civilians," KCNA said. "He admitted all his crimes and made an apology for them."
DPRK is short for the North's official name: the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
North Korea is technically still at war with the South and the United States, as a truce -- not a peace treaty -- was signed to end the Korean conflict.
Nicholas Wright / Palo Alto Weekly via AP, file
Merrill Newman, a retired finance executive and Red Cross volunteer, in Palo Alto, Calif. in 2005.
In a separate dispatch, KCNA carried what it said was a statement of apology by Newman, made after being detained.
"During the Korean War, I have been guilty of a long list of indelible crimes against DPRK government and Korean people as adviser of the Kuwol Unit of the U.N. Korea 6th Partisan Regiment part of the Intelligence Bureau of the Far East Command," it said.
The unit appears to refer to one of the special operations units of partisan, or irregular, fighters acting against the North.
There was no direct word from Newman, and his alleged apology, which was dated Nov. 9, couldn't be independently confirmed. Pyongyang has been accused of previously coercing statements from detainees.
Hours after the release of the “apology,” Obama administration officials appealed for his release.
“Given Mr. Newman's advanced age and health conditions, we urge the DPRK to release Mr. Newman so he may return home and reunite with his family,” said a U.S. State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity. The official said North Korea had permitted representatives of the Swedish Embassy consular access to Newman on Saturday, but provide no detail about his condition.
In a statement released Saturday, Newman's family expressed their desire to see him be released.
"Our focus now is on getting him home quickly to join his loved ones, who miss him deeply. We are asking that the DPRK authorities take into account his health and his age and, as an act of humanitarian compassion, allow him to depart immediately for home," the family statement read. "All of us want this ordeal to end and for the 85-year-old head of our extended family to be with us once more."
Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, likewise called on Pyongyang to free Newman.
Some experts said the fact that North Korea broadcast the statement from Newman is likely a prelude to his release.
Steven Weber, professor of political science at UC Berkeley, told NBC News on Saturday that he expects Newman will be released within a few days and that his detention was a “publicity stunt” by an attention-hungry North Korean regime. Weber said the U.S. should expect more stunts like this in the near future, especially with American delegates presently focused on a short-term deal with Iran over its nuclear program.
“Every time the attention of the world turns away from North Korea for too long they have to come up with some kind of a stunt to get the attention back on them,” he said.
He said the North Korean government would likely try to tie the release of Newman to less international scrutiny of the country’s illegal gun and counterfeit money trade.
“(They) do a lot of money laundering,” Weber said. “It’s an open secret.”
He also said that North Korea could try to use the American captives it holds to gain an advantage in talks with the U.S., along with China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea, intended to compel it to halt its proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Yoo Ho-Yeol, a professor of North Korea studies at Korea University in Seoul, told the Associated Press that North Korea likely issued the confession in the form of an apology to resolve Newman's case quickly without starting legal proceedings.
North Korea is extremely sensitive about any criticism and regularly accuses Washington and Seoul of seeking to overthrow its authoritarian system through various means — claims the U.S. and South Korea dismiss. The State Department has repeatedly warned Americans about traveling to the country, citing the risk of arbitrary detention.
Newman, who had been visiting North Korea as a tourist, has been held in Pyongyang since officials took him off an Air Koryo plane that was scheduled to leave the country on Oct. 26.
Newman, who suffers from a heart ailment and is in need of medication, is a retiree from Palo Alto, Calif. The U.S. State Department has refused to provide any details of the detention, but his wife, Lee, said last week that she believes his arrest was the result of "some dreadful misunderstanding."
No one has spoken with Newman or seen him since he was detained, though Newman’s son, Jeff, told NBC News that he has been in contact with the U.S. State Department and has reached out to former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former ambassador to the United Nations in the 1990s who has experience with issues involving North Korea. Richardson has in turn reached out to his North Korean contacts, a spokeswoman for his office told NBC News last week.
North Korea has been holding another U.S. citizen and a Christian missionary of Korean decent, arrested last year and sentenced in May to 15 years of hard labor on charges of committing hostile acts against the state.
Hayden, the NSC spokeswoman, said North Korea should free both Americans.
"We remain deeply concerned about the welfare of the U.S. citizens held in custody in the DPRK,” she said. “Kenneth Bae has been in DPRK custody for over a year, and we continue to urge the DPRK authorities to grant him amnesty and immediate release. We also urge the immediate release of Merrill Newman, detained more recently. Given Mr. Newman's advanced age and health conditions, we urge the DPRK to release Mr. Newman so he may return home and reunite with his family.”
NBC News’ Simon Moya-Smith, Catherine Chomiak and Kristen Welker and the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
First published November 30 2013, 6:48 PM