- Associated Press - Sunday, December 1, 2013

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The family of an elderly U.S. tourist detained for more than a month in North Korea said Saturday the Swedish ambassador had seen the man and found him to be in good health.

Merrill Newman’s family in California said in a statement that the State Department told them that the Swedish ambassador to North Korea had visited the 85-year-old Mr. Newman at a Pyongyang hotel.

“We were very pleased to hear that the Ambassador was allowed to pay this first visit to Merrill,” the statement said. “As a result of the visit, we know that Merrill is in good health. … Merrill reports that he is being well treated and that the food is good.”

An Obama administration official called for his release, urging North Korea to consider his age and health conditions.


Sweden handles consular issues for Americans in North Korea since the U.S. and North Korea have no diplomatic relations.

Mr. Newman’s family said the ambassador’s visit eased their concerns about his health, and they pleaded with North Korean authorities to take his health and age into account and let him go as an act of humanitarian compassion.

The family’s report came hours after North Korea state media released video showing Mr. Newman reading an apology for alleged crimes during the Korean War and for “hostile acts” against the state during a recent trip.

Pyongyang has been accused of previously coercing statements from detainees. There was no way to reach Mr. Newman to determine the circumstances of the alleged confession. But it was riddled with stilted English and grammatical errors, such as “I want not punish me.”

“I have been guilty of a long list of indelible crimes against DPRK government and Korean people,” Mr. Newman purportedly wrote in a four-page statement, adding: “Please forgive me.”

The statement, carried in the North’s official Korean Central News Agency, said the war veteran allegedly attempted to meet with any surviving soldiers he had trained during the Korean War to fight North Korea, and that he admitted to killing civilians and brought an e-book criticizing North Korea. DPRK stands for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s official name.

It wasn’t clear what would happen to Mr. Newman now. But the statement alleges that Mr. Newman says if he goes back to the U.S., he will tell the truth about the country — a possible indication that he could be released.

The apology can be seen as Pyongyang taking steps needed to release Mr. Newman, said Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor of North Korea studies at Korea University in Seoul. North Korea likely issued the confession in the form of an apology to resolve Mr. Newman’s case quickly without starting legal proceedings, Mr. Yoo said.

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.

Mr. Newman, an avid traveler and retired finance executive, was taken off a plane Oct. 26 by North Korean authorities while preparing to leave the country after a 10-day tour. His traveling companion seated next to him, neighbor and former Stanford University Professor Bob Hamrdla, was allowed to depart.

Mr. Newman’s son, Jeffrey Newman, said his father wanted to return to the country where he had spent three years during the Korean War.

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