E-book details Palo Alto resident's North Korea ordeal

Merrill Newman's six-week detention included tense behind-the-scenes diplomacy and his own strategies of defiance

The interrogations in the Pyongyang hotel room were stressful for Merrill Newman.

The retired Silicon Valley executive would face a North Korean man known only as "the investigator," who sat in silhouette, his face obscured. Over and over, sometimes yelling, the communist official would demand that Newman, a Korean War veteran, apologize for his so-called "illegal acts."

"If you do not tell us everything honestly, fully, and in great detail … you will not be able to return to your home country," the man threatened, according to an account released this month of the Palo Alto resident's stunning 2013 detention.

For more than a year, the details of then-85-year-old Newman's 44-day ordeal in North Korea have been shrouded in mystery. While he was captive, the communist country's culture of secrecy and the United States' lack of diplomatic relations with North Korea made it nearly impossible to know what was happening to Newman. Then there was the silence of his distraught family members, who were advised not to jeopardize his safety by speaking out and putting North Korea on the defensive.

When Newman returned to the U.S., the private octogenarian declined media interviews as he recovered and reintegrated into life in Palo Alto.

Now, an e-book written by Mike Chinoy, senior fellow at the U.S-China Institute at USC and a foreign correspondent for CNN for 24 years, tells the tale of Newman's captivity and the harrowing behind-the-scenes efforts to free him. Based on interviews with Newman, his family and those who worked to secure Newman's release, "The Last P.O.W." is a straightforward narrative that describes their rollercoaster of bewilderment, frustration, fear, false hopes and finally jubilation.

The book reveals that neither Newman nor his wife, Lee, had any qualms about the planned 10-day vacation in October 2013, which he took with his friend Bob Hamdrla.

"I was perfectly comfortable," Lee told Chinoy. "It wasn't something that had any significance for me."

Newman, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army in the Korean War, even contacted some former military comrades, now in Seoul, South Korea, to ask if they knew of "anyone special" he could see in North Korea.

In early 1953, Newman had been part of a special unit nicknamed the White Tigers, which trained and coordinated South Koreans to sabotage communist forces in North Korea. They operated out of Mt. Kuwol, a mountain range, which had become, by the time of Newman's trip, a "summer getaway for Koreans," according to the website of the London travel agency through which Newman and Hamdrla booked their trip. It was possible, Newman thought, that some former fighters were still alive.

He would soon learn the degree to which he underestimated the climate of hostility in North Korea about the war.

"After 60 years, my assumption was that, like Germany or Japan or Vietnam, people forget," he told Chinoy. "That was my mistake. It's not true. The North Koreans still think the war is on."

The book tells of how the men's two female tour guides were actually informants. Prior to the going to Mt. Kuwol on Sunday, Oct. 20, Newman asked the guides to help him contact former soldiers whom he might have known.

"It was probably a dumb thing to do. It was clearly my error to indicate I'd like to make contact with any North Korean survivors," he told Chinoy.

After his inquiry, the trip to Mt. Kuwol was canceled, supposedly because roads had been washed out.

Another fateful conversation took place on Thursday, Oct. 24, the book states. One guide told Newman he might be able to help the government bring North and South Korean families back together, and, encouraged, Newman showed his guide the email with former Kuwol comrades in Seoul, the one in which he asked if there might be anyone he should look up while in North Korea.

That's when things took a turn for the worse.

The next day, Newman was taken to the hotel lobby for a meeting with two men.

"Almost a year later, this meeting remains so traumatic that he only broadly remembers that the North Koreans questioned him about the Korean War," Chinoy writes.

"It was tense. They were yelling at me. I was shaken and upset," Newman said, adding that they threatened not to give him or Hamdrla back their passports.

As news reports later revealed, Newman was on the plane to leave Pyongyang on Oct. 26 when a government official boarded and removed him -- the start of what would turn into six weeks of detention.

One touching anecdote revealed in the book: Newman was initially left alone in a room at the Yanggakdo Hotel and, seeing a phone, he called Lee. Surprisingly, the call went through, and the two were able to speak briefly before the connection was cut.

On the subject of the interrogations Newman underwent about the Kuwol Regiment, Chinoy relates a few of Newman's own strategies for getting through the sessions.

On the insistence of the interrogator that South Korean Kuwol guerrillas had been highly effective, a view that Newman didn't actually agree with, he said he started to make up information.

"I had to be creative and credit them with more success than they actually had. So I said they stole explosives, attacked mines. I just made that up," he told Chinoy.

Newman also found ways to ensure that a "confession" he made, which was video-recorded and later broadcast, could not be seen as being of his own volition.

"The Last P.O.W." also provides insight into the tense and frantic diplomatic efforts going on to gain Newman's release, which involved everyone from the North Korean U.N. ambassador, the State Department and basketball player Dennis Rodman to diplomats for China and the Swedish ambassador.

Most effective appeared to be Evans Revere, a former State Department Asia expert, who was brought in at the request of former Secretary of Defense and Stanford Professor William Perry. Revere worked privately with his North Korea U.N. contacts and consulted closely with Newman's family.

The book also describes how the family's effort to get basic information about their husband and father initially proved to be a bureaucratic nightmare. First the State Department told them the Privacy Act prohibited disclosures about Newman – even to his family -- without his permission, which was impossible to get.

When an exception in the Privacy Act was found related to medical need, the State Department relented. Unfortunately, as Newman's son, Jeff, told Chinoy, "What we found out was that they didn't really know anything."

The book also discusses how the sudden media firestorm about Newman's detention, sparked by a Nov. 20 San Jose Mercury News article, frayed the nerves of those trying to advocate quietly on his behalf.

Unaware of the international attention being paid to his plight, Newman told Chinoy that the seemingly endless days alone in his hotel room were isolating.

"I'd get really low when nobody came. They were just feeding me and checking my blood pressure, and the rest of the time I was just sitting. What in the world is going on?" he said. It occurred to him that he might be a bargaining chip for some other negotiation.

"It was really uncomfortable," Newman said.

The book also details Newman's sudden release on Saturday, Dec. 7, when his interpreter entered the room at 6 a.m. and told him to get ready. An hour later, a higher-ranking investigator arrived and told him he was going to be released -- but Newman would have to make a variety of statements after he was released, such as thanking the North Korean government. Among the anecdotes Newman recalled for the book: When returning his belongings, the officials tried to keep his Kindle, but he insisted he get it back. They gave in but confiscated the journal he'd kept for six weeks. Also, his money was returned, missing 400 Euros.

Newman said he doesn't a hold grudge against his captors individually, though he did intentionally say something to the officials that he hopes got one of his guides in trouble. She had asked him to give her American dollars in exchange for Euros, presumably to use on the black market.

Asked to reflect on his actions, Newman told Chinoy: "It seems really stupid now, even having opened that door. But at the time, it didn't seem so. ... It's done. I can't undo it."

Ultimately, Chinoy summarizes, Newman's ordeal was a revealing brushstroke on a bigger canvas of volatile international relations.

"Merrill Newman's detention became a symbol of the seemingly irreconcilable differences that keep the North, the South, and the U.S. in a permanent state of tension," writes Chinoy, who has visited North Korea 17 times, "and revealed the inner workings of the security apparatus of one of the world's most totalitarian states."

"The Last P.O.W." is available from as a Kindle e-book.

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7 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 14, 2014 at 11:37 am

> "After 60 years, my assumption was that, like Germany
> or Japan or Vietnam, people forget," he told Chinoy.
> "That was my mistake. It's not true. The North Koreans
> still think the war is on."

It’s hard to criticize Mr. Newman at this point, as he endured a lot. But far too many Americans have come to believe that the world is no different than their neighborhoods—and it isn’t. It really isn’t! Mr. Newman has had an opportunity to deal with the North Koreans twice in his life now. Let’s hope others can learn from his unfortunate experiences.

North Korea is constantly threatening to engulf the US in a “sea of flames”. It’s very possible that this incredibly evil government has, or will, develop nuclear weapons in the near future—leaving us all wondering what to do to keep them from using them?

Given North Korea’s belligerence and their tendency to hold Americans for reasons known only to themselves, one might wonder why the State Dept. hasn’t banned travel to this country?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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