nr war vet release returns home_00002303.jpg
U.S. veteran arrives home from N.Korea
01:42 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

NEW: "It's been a great homecoming," Merrill Newman says upon arrival in San Francisco

Video shows Newman smiling as he walks through Beijing's airport

The 85-year-old was detained in North Korea in October, issued a public apology

State news reports Newman was released for "humanitarian" reasons

CNN  — 

Merrill Newman – the 85-year-old American detained by North Korean authorities earlier this fall – has been “deported,” North Korea’s state news agency KCNA reported early Saturday.

“It’s been a great homecoming,” said Newman, who was wearing a blue sport coat and khakis. He thanked the U.S. and Swedish diplomats who had helped secure his release, then told reporters, “I’m tired … ready to be with my family now. Thank you all for the support we got, very much appreciated.”

With that, accompanied by his wife, Lee, and son, Jeff, he walked off.

Hours earlier, in the airport in Beijing, video showed him smiling as he walked past a cavalcade of reporters. He felt good, he said, and was looking forward to seeing his wife

“I’m very glad to be on my way home,” Newman said. “And I appreciate the tolerance the DPRK government has given to me to be on my way.”

The communist country “deported” the veteran of the Korean War, North Korea’s state news agency KCNA reported early Saturday. The move 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.

His son announced late Friday that he is on his way home to the United States. “We are absolutely delighted to confirm that Merrill Newman is on his way home,” Jeff Newman said.

“We are absolutely delighted to confirm that Merrill Newman is on his way home after being released by the DPRK,” said Jeff Newman, Merrill’s son.

“This has been a very difficult ordeal for us as a family and particularly for him,” said his son.

The KCNA report stated that investigators determined that “Newman entered the DPRK with a wrong understanding of it and perpetrated a hostile act against it.”

“Taking into consideration his admittance of the act committed by him on the basis of his wrong understanding (and the) apology made by him for it, his sincere repentance of it and his advanced age and health condition, the above-said institution deported him from the country from a humanitarian viewpoint,” the official North Korean report added.

Focus now on Kenneth Bae

Jeff Newman also called for the release of Kenneth Bae, another American being held in North Korea.

The State Department repeated its call for the DPRK to pardon Bae and release him, too. The senior administration official said the United States is now paying full-time attention to securing Bae’s release.

Bae’s family said it was pleased to learn of Newman’s release.

“We have been praying for him and are very happy that his family will have him at the head of their table for the holidays. We believe that our Kenneth should also come home soon. We are thankful for all who are advocating on Kenneth’s behalf and for any ongoing dialogue with the DPRK government. We have faith in our government to bring Kenneth home, and we dearly wish that we will also have joyful holidays with Kenneth,” the family said in a statement.

Biden told reporters in South Korea that he “played no direct role” in the release. He added that his office offered to let Newman fly home with him on Air Force Two, but State Department officials said he’d take a direct commercial flight to San Francisco.

“It’s a positive thing they’ve done,” said the vice president, who talked Saturday morning by phone with Newman, according to another Obama administration official. “But they still have Mr. Bae, who has no reason being held in the North (and) should be released immediately.”

“While the release of Merrill Newman is welcome news indeed, he never should have been detained in the first place. The North Koreans should also release Kenneth Bae as a humanitarian gesture,” Richardson said in a statement.

U.S. ‘deeply concerned’ about citizens held in North Korea

Old resentments

Newman had traveled in October as a tourist to North Korea on a 10-day organized private tour of North Korea. Phone calls and postcards he sent indicated that the trip was going well and gave no indication of a problem, Jeff Newman said.

The day before the Palo Alto, California, resident was to leave, “one or two Korean authorities” met with Newman and his tour guide, the son added. They talked about Newman’s service record, which left “my dad … a bit bothered,” according to Jeff Newman.

Then, just minutes before his Beijing-bound plane was set to depart Pyongyang in late October, he was taken off the aircraft by North Korean authorities.

For weeks, the Pyongyang government didn’t explain why they were holding Newman.

An explanation came a few days ago, when state media published and broadcast what they described as the Korean War veteran’s “apology.” In fact, that word – “apology” – was written atop the first of four handwritten pages detailing his alleged indiscretions.

In the note – which was 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 various 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 KCNA report.

The reported message also touched on his return 60 years later to North Korea, admitting that he “shamelessly … had a plan to meet any surviving soldiers and pray for the souls of the dead soldiers.”

His statement ended: “If I go back to (the) USA, I will tell the true features of the DPRK and the life the Korean people are leading.”

Photos show scale of North Korea’s repressive prison camps

Hostile acts”

This public apology – which University of California, Berkeley, professor Steve Weber characterized as “highly scripted political theater” – left some wondering what would happen to Newman.

Would he join Bae, an American arrested in North Korea in November 2012 who last May was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor after North Korea’s government found him guilty of “hostile acts” and attempts to topple the government?

Pyongyang has long been regarded by many as a repressive state, with its insularity, sharp restrictions on speech and other freedoms, and decades of saber-rattling primarily targeting its chief foes, South Korea and the United States.

Its isolation is exacerbated by widespread uproar over its nuclear program. The East Asian nation’s reported quest to create a nuclear weapon, as well as its resistance to international monitoring of its activities, have resulted in economic sanctions, compounding difficulties in getting enough energy and food for its people.

Merrill’s release may serve to relax tensions with the United States.

But above all, it will please his wife, who last month told CNN, “We need to have Merrill back at the head of the table for the holidays.”

Other detained Americans

CNN’s Tom Watkins, Jill Dougherty, Elise Labott and Joseph Netto contributed to this report.