Palo Alto resident, 85, being held in North Korea

Merrill Newman was traveling as a tourist when he was detained Oct. 26

A Palo Alto man was removed from a plane and is being detained in North Korea, his traveling companion to the country has confirmed.

Merrill Newman, 85, a resident of the Channing House retirement community, was leaving North Korea on Oct. 26 after a tourist trip when he was detained. The story was first reported by the San Jose Mercury News.

A November Channing House newsletter noted that resident Bob Hamrdla accompanied Newman to North Korea. Newman took Korean-language lessons to prepare for their 10-day independent trip. They were to be accompanied at all times by two Korean guides, the newsletter noted.

"There has to be a terrible misunderstanding. I hope that the North Koreans will see this as a humanitarian matter and allow him to return to his family as soon as possible," Hamrdla said in a statement.

During a press briefing in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 20, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki would not confirm whether Newman is being held, citing privacy laws. But she said a travel warning to the country was updated Nov. 19 and reflects "recent events and reports of North Korean authorities detaining U.S. citizens."

"We have seen the reports. Protection of U.S. citizens is a top priority," she said. Pressed by reporters, she would not comment on why the department remains tight-lipped, which has not been the case in previous incidents, reporters told Psaki.

The United States has no diplomatic ties with North Korea. The U.S. government relies on the Embassy of Sweden as the U.S.'s protecting power in Pyongyang. The Swedish embassy there provides limited services to U.S. citizens in North Korea who are ill, injured, arrested or who die, according to a State Department travel warning.

Under the U.S.-DPRK (North Korean) Interim Consular Agreement, North Korea is supposed to notify the Swedish Embassy within four days of an arrest or detention of a U.S. citizen and will allow consular visits by the Swedish Embassy within two days after a request. The North Korean government routinely delays or denies consular access, however, according to the State Department.

Calls to the Swedish Embassy were not immediately returned.

An unnamed diplomat said Newman was in North Korea for sightseeing, and he had a valid visa, according to Japan's Kyodo News Service.

Newman, a retired finance executive for technology companies, was featured in a Palo Alto Weekly article in May 2005 after being honored with the Avenidas Lifetimes of Achievement award. He was an avid traveler. He volunteered for the Palo Alto Area Chapter of the American Red Cross for nearly 60 years and was on its board for 30 years.

Friends of Newman declined to comment on his situation, citing fears for his safety.

The State Department advisory warns against all travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea and replaces an Oct. 1 travel warning.

"Travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea is not routine, and U.S. citizens crossing into North Korea, even accidentally, have been subject to arbitrary arrest and long-term detention," the warning noted.

Since January 2009, four U.S. citizens have been arrested for entering the country illegally, and two citizens who entered on valid visas were arrested inside North Korea on other charges. The State Department has received other reports of North Korean authorities arbitrarily detaining U.S. citizens and not allowing them to leave the country.

Visitors can be arrested for involvement in unsanctioned religious or political activities, even if performed outside of the country, unauthorized travel or unauthorized interaction with the local population, according to the State Department. Other reasons cited for detention include speaking directly to North Korean citizens, exchanging currency with unauthorized dealers, taking unauthorized photographs or shopping at stores not designated for foreigners.

Up to one-third of all Western tourists in North Korea are now American, according to North Korean (NK) News. North Korean tourist authorities have been relaxing restrictions on U.S. visitors.

According to Kyodo News Service, the North Korean Foreign Ministry denounced a resolution passed on Nov. 20 by the Third Committee of the U.N. General Assembly calling on Pyongyang to improve human rights, including its past abductions of Japanese and other foreign nationals. The resolution was led by Japan and the European Union and has been renewed for nine years.


Posted by Stay-Away-From-North-Korea, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 20, 2013 at 2:19 pm

North Korea is not a nice place--for people living there, or for people who are just curious. If you are curious about this place, it would be a lot safer to read a book, or try to find some videos.

Here's hoping Mr. Newman is released quickly.

Posted by didn't know, a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 20, 2013 at 4:36 pm

I didn't even know that Americans were allowed to visit North Korea except as invited guests like Dennis Rodman or Eric Schmidt. How did he get a visa?

Posted by Info, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 20, 2013 at 5:03 pm

[Post removed.]

Posted by charlie, a resident of South of Midtown
on Nov 20, 2013 at 6:04 pm

[Post removed.]

Posted by Info, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 20, 2013 at 6:10 pm

Didn't know asked how this person got a visa to North Korea. I posted a link to a website that provides guided tours to North Korea. What is wrong with that? The company is called Koryo tours. They are based in Beijing and Americans can obtain a visa to visit North Korea as part of a guided tour group. Understand now, editor??????

Posted by Nayeli, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 20, 2013 at 11:23 pm

Wow! Why would someone arrest an 85 year-old man? What excuse will those crazy communists come up with this time?

Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 20, 2013 at 11:48 pm

I'm sure he'll have better luck in the next leg of his vacation, Iran! ;-) Poor guy, I wonder what made him choose to decide to the go to North Korea? He should have checked out Venezuela instead.

Posted by Stay-Away-From-North-Korea, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 21, 2013 at 12:03 am

This VOA (Voice of America) press release answers a couple of questions--

Web Link

Mr. Merrill is supposed to have served as an Army Officer during the Korean War, in Korea, in the South. The US (UN) forces are north of the DMZ more than a couple of times, so it's hard to believe that Merrill had not actually been in North Korea during the War.

The following, from the VOA press release, might offer a clue as to what is going on:

North Korea has been accused of using foreign detainees as bargaining chips in negotiations with Western countries over its controversial nuclear weapons program.

It's always possible that Mr. Merrill was in the wrong place, and the at the wrong time, when the North Korean government was in the mood to try to bargin his freedom for some sort of concession from the US government.

Posted by David, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 21, 2013 at 9:17 am

Why would anyone in their right mind vacation in North Korea?

Posted by Enough!, a resident of Green Acres
on Nov 21, 2013 at 10:20 am

WHY do Americans go to places that are hostile? It becomes a huge problem for them, their families, and the government.

Posted by Not Going There, a resident of Mountain View
on Nov 21, 2013 at 10:20 am

Recently I've been seeing lots of lovely ads for vacationing in Korea. Even gave it a passing thought.

But the ads do not mention detaining American citizens!

Really makes me want to visit - NOT

Posted by notMyName, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 21, 2013 at 11:56 am

I heard that he fought North Korea in the Korean war. Perhaps that explains both why he wanted to go there and why he is still there.

Posted by Sean, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 21, 2013 at 12:34 pm

[Post removed.]

Posted by Nutzola, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 21, 2013 at 1:47 pm

Knowing how they feel about the west, why would anyone of sound mind travel to North Korea for any reason? Especially when they threatened to nuke us a few months ago!

Posted by nuze, a resident of South of Midtown
on Nov 21, 2013 at 5:26 pm

[Post removed.]

Posted by Perhaps because. . . , a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 21, 2013 at 8:49 pm

I read that he told his tour guide that he served in the Korean War. The person probably told Korean authorities who aren't going to be happy to hear that someone who killed their own is visiting their country.

Posted by chris, a resident of University South
on Nov 21, 2013 at 10:44 pm

Not Going There,

are you confusing North Korea and South Korea? I have not seen any vacation brochures for North Korea. Many thousands of Americans travel to
South Korea.

Posted by chris, a resident of University South
on Nov 21, 2013 at 10:51 pm

CNN article on Western tourism to North Korea

Web Link

Posted by Midlander, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 22, 2013 at 7:48 am

I traveled to North Korea a couple of years ago with Koryo. It was a very interesting experience. The authorities attempt to provide a very controlled view, but some glimpses of reality did occasionally leak through. It was also interesting to see what the authorities regarded as important and how they chose to project their view of realty. Also the Mass Games were both more intense and more light-hearted (yes, really) than I had expected.

Koryo instructed us on a long list of do's and dont's. Some of these were quite non-obvious. Do not throw a way a newspaper with the Glorious Leader's photograph on the cover! That might be construed as an insult. Yikes.

The authorities try very hard to control any interaction between visitors and the local population. I noticed Mr Newman had been learning some Korean. Unfortunately trying to exercise that skill might easily have lead to inadvertent problems.

Posted by Pyongyers, a resident of another community
on Nov 22, 2013 at 10:05 am

There are about 20 or so western companies taking tours in to North Korea, and all can offer visas for US tourists.

In this case the tour was provided by Juche Travel Services. Most tours these days have a western guide with the parties, but you can travel solely with Korean guides, as Mr Newman did.

A surprisingly high proportion of visitors are Americans, and they mostly have a great time. Mr Newman may in a moment when his guard was down - towards the end of the tour, trusts his guides, he's tired of not speaking his mind may have disclosed that he fought in the Korean War (if that's true), which is not a good idea. Korea is not Vietnam, the US and NK are not at peace.

Posted by Ray, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 22, 2013 at 11:00 am

I was thinking it might be a good idea for everyone to contact Rep. Eshoo (Web Link), Sen. Feinstein (Web Link) and Sen. Boxer (Web Link) and just let them know that its really important to you that Washington needs to stay on top of this and use every tool they have to bring Mr. Newman back quickly. It appears this story is in the national and international press, which is good, but it never hurts to reach out and let our elected officials know this needs to remain a priority until he is back here in Palo Alto!

Posted by citizen, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 22, 2013 at 11:24 am

"When in Rome, do as the Romans do". I guess he is not following this common sense in NK, making "trouble", now US government has to rescue him. Best wishes for his early return, but don't try it again just because you think you are American, you can do anything you like in other parts of world.

Posted by Midlander, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 22, 2013 at 9:10 pm

Citizen, you are leaping to rather a lot of assumptions there. We don't know what happened, and we don't know whether Mr Newman did anything wrong. Let's wait until we know a lot more before assigning any blame here!

Posted by Perhaps because . . ., a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 22, 2013 at 10:12 pm

Midlander, that's the whole point. Other countries are not like America. I agree with Citizen. He didn't necessarily do anything wrong - they can detain him for any reason they want. For instance, why have they detained missionaries and forced them to 15 years of hard labor? When will Americans be grateful for our liberty, justice, and freedom? Life is cheap in many other countries.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Green Acres
on Nov 23, 2013 at 1:56 pm

Ray has a good idea. Please advocate to have this husband, father, and a us resident back to the states. I hope the us uses every national and international assistance to get his release.

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