Merrill Newman, 85, a resident of the Channing House retirement community, was scheduled to leave North Korea on Oct. 26 with fellow Channing House resident Bob Hamrdla. The day before, Newman and his tour guide had met with one or two Korean authorities, Newman's son, Jeff Newman, told CNN on Wednesday.
Korean authorities discussed Newman's Korean War service record, his son said.
"I understand my dad was a bit bothered," the younger Newman told CNN, but he and Hamrdla did not think it was an issue.
Then authorities asked to see Newman's passport five minutes before takeoff for Beijing, China, and then they took him away.
Jeff Newman said that his father's arrest is a misunderstanding.
"My father is a (Korean War) veteran and wanted to see the country and culture he has been interested in for years. He arranged this with a travel agent that was recommended and said was approved by the North Korean government for travel of foreigners. He had all the proper visas," he said.
Jeff Newman said his father suffers from a heart condition. Swedish diplomats delivered medicine to North Korea, but he did not know if it was given to his father.
The news of Newman's detention was first reported by the San Jose Mercury News.
Newman took Korean-language lessons to prepare for the 10-day independent trip, according to a Channing House newsletter. He and Hamrdla 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.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki declined this week to confirm Newman has been detained, citing privacy laws. But she said a travel warning to North Korea was updated Nov. 19 and reflects "recent events and reports of North Korean authorities detaining U.S. citizens."
U.S. Ambassador Glyn Davies, special representative for North Korea policy, said during remarks in China this week that Newman's detention did not bode well for easing tensions over nuclear disarmament with North Korea.
"I think it is an indication that North Korea seems not to be seeking a better relationship with the United States, that they are not taking actions to address our concerns on American citizens being held in North Korea," he said.
Newman is not the first American to be detained in the past year in North Korea. Kenneth Bae, an American of Korean descent, was arrested in North Korea in November 2012 and received a 15-year sentence of hard labor in May, having been found guilty of "hostile acts." North Korea claimed he attempted to topple the government. The U.S. has been trying to secure his release but has been unsuccessful, Davies said.
"We certainly think that North Korea should think long and hard about these cases and understand that, for the United States, these are matters of core concern for us, the fate of Americans who are in North Korea being held by North Koreans. But I don't want to make any solid line link between these cases and broader issues," he said.
Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters on Thursday that Newman's detention is part of a series of "very, very disturbing choices by the North Koreans," according to the Washington, D.C. news outlet The Hill. He called on North Korea to free Newman and other detainees. The U.S. has been working with China to help resolve nuclear and other issues with North Korea.
"I think this is obviously one of those moments when North Korea needs to figure out where it's heading and recognize that the United States of America is not engaging in belligerent, threatening behavior. We are anxious to proceed to a negotiation about denuclearization and to move away from these kinds of provocative actions," he said.
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 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.
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. He also served on the boards of several other local nonprofits and companies.
Friends of Newman declined to comment on his situation this week, citing fears for his safety.
But his son expressed his desire for his father's release in an interview with the Associated Press: "All we want as a family is to have my father, my kids' grandfather, returned to California so he can be with his family for Thanksgiving."
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.