SAN JOSE, Calif. — The tense international saga of an 85-year-old grandfather with a heart condition and a top-secret past came to an end late Friday when North Korea released Merrill Newman after 41 days in custody.
“I am very glad to be on my way home,” a smiling Newman told reporters after arriving at the airport in Beijing from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. “And I appreciate the tolerance the (North Korean) government has given me to be on my way.”
Vice President Joe Biden, who was in South Korea to visit a Korean War Memorial in Seoul, spoke to Newman and offered him a ride home on Air Force Two. But Newman declined, saying he planned to take a direct flight from Beijing to San Francisco.
“I feel good,” Newman told reporters, adding that he was looking forward to reuniting with his wife, Lee, on Saturday. The couple live in an retirement complex in Palo Alto, where residents tied yellow ribbons around the front pillars of the building. When his release was announced in the dining hall at dinner time Friday, the residents erupted in applause.
“People in the hallways are saying how glad they are to hear this, and we hope he gets back very soon and very safely,” said Bill Blankenburg, a neighbor at the retirement home.
Newman had told his neighbors before his trip that he simply wanted to return as a tourist to North Korea, where he was an Army infantry officer in 1953. His son, Jeffrey, had said that the war had a “powerful impact” on him.
After Newman, a retired corporate finance executive, was first plucked off the plane by North Korean officials on Oct. 26 at the end of his 10-day tour, his wife and son said there must be a “terrible misunderstanding.”
Newman’s release comes a week after new details emerged about his role during the Korean War secretly training anti-communist guerrillas fighting behind enemy lines. Those revelations also shed light on the videotaped “apology” that Newman gave his captors Nov. 9, when he purportedly admitted committing crimes during the war as well as “hostile acts” against the state during last month’s visit.
Thaddeus Taylor III, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer, said of North Korea’s decision to release Newman: “They only had two basic choices. One: Let him go. Two: Watch him die.”
Taylor said there was “no upside” for the North Koreans to keep Newman.
Biden, speaking to reporters while visiting the Korean War Memorial in Seoul, called on the North Koreans to also release Kenneth Bae of Lynnwood, another U.S. citizen in the North’s custody.