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For North Korea, the war isn't over, says freed U.S. vet Merrill Newman

By Dana Ford, CNN
updated 6:11 PM EST, Mon December 9, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Another American is still being held by North Korean authorities
  • Merrill Newman, 85, was detained in October
  • He returned to the United States this weekend
  • "The North Koreans seem to have misinterpreted my curiosity," he says

(CNN) -- Until he returned home this weekend, Merrill Newman -- an American held in North Korea -- had no idea what a story he'd become.

During his detention, the 85-year-old veteran of the Korean War had no access to news. He has since seen the flood.

"Looking at the television and newspaper reports, I've seen a lot of speculation about why I was detained. I've given considerable thought to this and have come to the conclusion that I just didn't understand that, for the North Korean regime, the Korean War isn't over and that even innocent remarks about the war can cause big problems if you are a foreigner," he said in a statement Monday.

Newman traveled in October as a tourist to North Korea on a 10-day organized tour. Authorities nabbed him just minutes before his Beijing-bound plane was set to depart Pyongyang.

Merrill talks about his time in North Korean custody

Merrill Newman back home in California
What was Biden's role in Newman release?
A stern looking North Korean guard by the Chinese border customs office. This image was deleted by North Korean officials. A stern looking North Korean guard by the Chinese border customs office. This image was deleted by North Korean officials.
Photos North Korea didn't want you to see
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In his statement, Newman describes what he thinks might have set them off.

"I innocently asked my North Korean guides whether some of those who fought in the war in the Mount Kuwol area might still be alive, and expressed an interest in possibly meeting them if they were. The North Koreans seem to have misinterpreted my curiosity as something more sinister," he wrote.

"It is now clear to me the North Koreans still feel much more anger about the war than I realized. With the benefit of hindsight, I should have been more sensitive to that."

For weeks, the North Korean government offered no explanation as to why they were holding Newman.

An explanation finally came last month, when state media published and broadcast what they described as the Korean War veteran's "apology." The word was written atop the first of four handwritten pages detailing his alleged indiscretions.

In the note dated November 9, Newman talked about his having advised the Kuwol unit, part of the "intelligence bureau" fighting against Pyongyang during the Korean War. He detailed how he commanded troops to collect "information" and wage deadly attacks.

"After I killed so many civilians and (North Korean) soldiers and destroyed strategic objects in the DPRK during the Korean War, I committed indelible offensive acts against the DPRK government and Korean people," Newman said, according to that report.

In his statement, Newman distanced himself from those comments.

"Anyone who has read the text of it or who has seen the video of me reading it knows that the words were not mine and were not delivered voluntarily. Anyone who knows me knows that I could not have done the things they had me 'confess' to," he wrote.

Newman said he was treated well during his detention.

His release coincided with a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to South Korea, where he laid a wreath in honor of those who died in the war that pitted North against South.

A senior administration official said that Newman's release was the result of direct contact between Washington and Pyongyang. The official said the North Koreans had told the Obama administration in a telephone call that they were releasing Newman; no explanation was offered.

Newman thanked Biden, the U.S. State Department, the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang and family and friends in his statement.

He also asked that people not forget Kenneth Bae, another American being held in North Korea. Bae was arrested in 2012 and sentenced in May to 15 years for so-called hostile acts and attempts to topple the government.

"I know there is a lot of interest in this, and I'll do my best to answer as many questions as I can," wrote Newman.

"For now, let me finish by saying again how great it is to be back home, safe, and with my loved ones."

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CNN's Greg Botelho and Ben Brumfield contributed to this report.

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