Our Vet in Pyongyang

More than six decades ago, a young American lieutenant named Merrill Newman, a member of the U.S. Army’s secretive 8240th unit, also known as the White Tigers, helped oversee a clandestine group of Korean partisans who were fighting and spying deep inside North Korea.

These guerrillas, who belonged to the 6th Partisan Infantry Regiment — known in Korea as Kuwol — are still loathed in Pyongyang and glorified in Seoul for the damage they inflicted on the North during the war.

According to interviews conducted by the Associated Press, Newman oversaw guerrilla actions and gave the fighters advice, but he wasn’t involved in day-to-day operations. He also gave them rice, clothes and weapons from the U.S. military when they obtained key intelligence and captured North Korean and Chinese troops.

All Kuwol guerrillas came to South Korea shortly after the war’s end and haven’t infiltrated the North since then, they say, so there are no surviving members in North Korea. There are still a number of Kuwol guerillas living in the South, however, and about 30 of them — some carrying bouquets of flowers — waited for several hours in vain to meet Newman at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, on Oct. 27.

Newman, now 85, never arrived. Only hours earlier, after his 10-day, closely guided tour of North Korea, Newman was pulled off the plane by North Korean officials as it readied for liftoff in Pyongyang.

He’s been held in custody ever since, accused by the North Koreans of war crimes during his service in 1953, slandering the reclusive country’s socialist system and committing “hostile acts” in October by looking for spies and terrorists “under the guise of a tourist.”

In a statement that was clearly coerced by his captors, Newman said he trained guerrillas whose attacks continued even after the war ended, and ordered operations that led to the death of dozens of North Korean soldiers and civilians. He also said in the statement that he attempted to meet surviving Kuwol members.

A reclusive nuclear nation infamous for its belligerent, provocative actions, North Korea has a long record of detaining innocent Americas. It has held at least seven Americans since 2009, sometimes as ploys to extract visits by high-level American officials. America dutifully complied, with former President Bill Clinton flying to North Korea to obtain a pardon for two imprisoned U.S. journalists. In all, five detainees have been either released or deported.

Recently, however, Pyongyang has hardened its line, and Korean-American tour operator Kenneth Bae has now been held for more than a year, and has been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.

Newman, who suffers from a heart condition, has now been held for six weeks, and there are mounting concerns for his fate.

It was a bad idea at the wrong time, Thomas Henriksen, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, told MCT.

“In retrospect, it was quite foolhardy,” Henriksen said. “Whether he thought it through — he’s an old man — maybe he thought things were different. Americans have a sense of invulnerability. People just don’t understand how serious it is.”

On Tuesday, reports surfaced indicating more unrest within the North Korean government. Leader Kim Jong Un’s uncle and political mentor, considered more liberal and open to reforms, is said to have been ousted from the government and his aides executed.

“This is a time when North Korean authorities are a little tense. They’re not going to want to be in a forthcoming mood to release somebody now,” Henriksen said. “Anyone suspected of any kind of softness or being complicit with America will be looked on poorly. It doesn’t help his chances.”

Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday that the United States is doing all it can to secure the release of Newman and other Americans held captive around the world.

“These things are often best resolved in quiet diplomacy, under the radar screen, behind the scenes, and that is exactly what we have been pursuing,” Kerry told reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels. “And when, in fact, we secure their release, the track record of those outreaches and those initiatives will speak for themselves as to how much effort and energy has been put into trying to secure their release. And, G-d willing, we will get that done sooner rather than later, we hope.”

We can only hope that Secretary Kerry is right, and that the American government is indeed doing all it can on behalf of Newman and many other prisoners — including Alan Gross, a Jew who has been held by Cuba for four years on trumped up charges.

It is impossible to know for certain what a country is doing behind the scenes, but it is crucial that the White House and state department are frequently reminded that the nation that prides itself as being the leader of the free world has an obligation to do all it can to keep each and every one of its citizens free and safe.

We send our heartfelt wishes that Mr. Newman soon be released, and that he may return safe and sound to his home.