Editor’s Note: Mike Chinoy is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the University of Southern California’s US-China Institute and a former Beijing Bureau Chief and Senior Asia Correspondent for CNN. He has visited North Korea 17 times. This article is largely drawn from his book “The Last POW.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more CNN opinion here.
In October 2013, an 85-year-old American tourist, Korean War veteran Merrill Newman, was taken off his Air Koryo plane as he waited to leave Pyongyang after a week-long tourist trip to North Korea and detained. No one — his family, the State Department, the media — had any idea why, and the North Koreans initially said nothing.
Eventually, it emerged that the detention was connected to Newman’s role during the Korean War, when he ran a group of anti-Communist Korean agents operating behind North Korean lines known as the “Kuwol Comrades,” a reference to the Mt. Kuwol area south of Pyongyang, which was their key base.
A casual reference by Newman to one of his North Korean guides about having served with people in the Mt. Kuwol area convinced the always-suspicious North Korean security apparatus that he was some kind of secret agent returning to activate what they suspected — completely contrary to reality — was a geriatric network of spies.
However fanciful, the result was a weeks-long ordeal for the retired Palo Alto California businessman, who died last year. The details of Newman’s 42-day detention, which he recounted to me for my book about his experience, “The Last POW,” provide fascinating insights into how the North Korean security services operate — and may shed some light on what Travis King, the young American serviceman now in North Korean hands, might be facing.
The 23-year-old King darted across the demarcation line separating North and South Korea while on a group tour of the Joint Security Area in the middle of the Demilitarized Zone on Tuesday, an eyewitness on the same tour and US officials familiar with the case told CNN. His motives remain unclear, although he had faced legal trouble in South Korea and the prospect of being discharged from the military upon returning to the US. North Korea has so far said nothing about the incident, which comes amid a spike in tensions between Pyongyang, Washington and Seoul.
In Newman’s case almost a decade ago, the first thing he was ordered to do in the room where he was confined at Pyongyang’s Yanggankdo Hotel, was write a complete account of his life.
An interpreter translated the document into Korean, often asking Newman for explanations of some of the terms he used. The final draft came to 14 pages.
This was followed by numerous interrogation sessions. Each one lasted several hours, with an “investigator” — who always sat in front of a window so he would remain in silhouette, ensuring Newman could not make out his face — focusing on Newman’s involvement with the Kuwol fighters.
“They were looking for information,” Newman told me. “They wanted to know about the organization. They asked about the guerrillas. They were trying to get me to tell them names. I said we never used names; I told them there was a commander, a platoon leader, a boat captain.”
“What did the platoon leader look like?” the investigator asked.
Making it up as he went along, Newman replied, “Tall and skinny.”
“Long face or round face?”
“Long face,” Newman answered. “And the same with the commander — he was tall and long-faced.”
The investigator erupted. “You’re lying! We all know all about Lt. Newman. We have evidence. If you don’t tell us the truth, you will not be able to go to your home country.”
The interrogator wanted details. How many attacks did the Kuwol Comrades stage? Newman had no idea, so he said 10. How many people did the guerrillas kill? Newman arbitrarily picked a number: 50.
“If they want casualties,” he said, “I’ll give them casualties. It was just pure made-up.”
After a month in detention, Newman was told that he committed “major crimes” and that he must make a formal “confession.”
“The statement used words they dictated,” Newman said. “I did not try to tidy the language. I wanted it clearly understood [by those outside North Korea] that these were not my words, though in my handwriting.”
On November 9, Newman was taken to a large room on the ground floor of the Yanggakdo Hotel to read his “confession.” With video cameras rolling and his hands shaking, Newman began.
“During the Korean War, I have been guilty of a long list of indelible crimes against DPRK government and Korean people,” he said, adding that he “killed so many civilians and KPA [Korean People’s Army] soldiers and destroyed strategic objects.”
“I committed indelible offensive acts against the DPRK government and Korean people. Although 60 years have gone by, I came to DPRK on the excuse of the tour… Shamelessly, I had a plan to meet any surviving soldiers,” continued Newman.
“I also brought the e-book criticizing the Socialist DPRK and criticizing DPRK… I realize that I cannot be forgiven for any offensives, but I beg for pardon on my knees,” he said. “Please forgive me… If I go back to USA, I will tell the true features of the DPRK.”
At the end of the statement, Newman bowed to the camera, then signed it and stamped the paper with his thumbprint.
“You make a confession because you don’t have any choice,” Newman told me. “They have the key. And there isn’t any duplicate.”
Newman now thought the North Koreans would move to release him. But nothing happened. Confined in his hotel room, in moments of depression, he began to wonder if he would ever be released.
Apart from the “investigator,” his only other human contact came from his guards, the interpreter and a doctor and nurse. The North Koreans appeared to realize how much trouble they would face if something happened to him, so, four times a day, the doctor and nurse arrived to take his blood pressure, check his pulse and measure his heart rate.
“The interrogations were stressful. The investigator was saying, ‘The most important thing is for you to be healthy.’ I would say, ‘The most important thing is for me to be able to be home. Then I’ll be healthy.’ I was saying, ‘My wife is an old lady. She needs me.’ I talked to the doctors. I talked to the guards. I talked to the interpreter. Finally, the investigator said, ‘Stop. You sound like a three-year-old. It’s just going to make you stay here longer.’ So I stopped.”
But the “investigator” did urge Newman get some exercise, so after about a month in detention, he was taken out of the hotel for several walks on the island where the Yanggakdo was located.
“There were 81 steps down to the river,” Newman said. “Going up and down the steps, the nurse and doctor each held one arm to be sure I wouldn’t fall.”
But days would go by when the “investigator” did not appear. There was no explanation. Some days, even the interpreter was absent.
“I’d get really low when nobody came. They were just feeding me and checking my blood pressure. The rest of the time I was just sitting. What in the world is going on? They’ve got all the information they’re ever going to get. Why are they just ignoring me? I thought, ‘Are they holding me here as trading material?’”
On Friday, November 29, the North Koreans told Newman he would have a meeting with Swedish ambassador Karl-Olof Andersson the following day. The “investigator” and the interpreter instructed Merrill as to how to explain why he was being held.
Newman made notes and was then forced to rehearse, five times on Friday, and three more times on Saturday. But he was having trouble, because it was their English, not his, and they wanted him to do it without notes.
“I told them, I can’t. You are going to have to let me say it in my words, not yours. If you let me use my words, I can manage. If you want me to use your words, I have a real problem.”
“Indelible” — a word that was used repeatedly in the videotaped confession two weeks earlier — was one to which Newman had particular objections. Eventually, the North Koreans agreed to let him sound more like himself, but a senior official of higher rank than the “investigator” came by to listen and make sure Newman said only what he was supposed to.
“It was all choreographed. They didn’t want me to say another word,” Newman told me.
Andersson arrived and gave Newman some snacks, two bottles of beer and a Coca-Cola. He also brought letters from his family, which the North Koreans, presumably wanting to read them first, did not give to Newman until the middle of the following week.
Sitting across from Andersson, Newman awkwardly recited his lines. As he finished, the “investigator” walked behind the ambassador, looked at Merrill, and flashed a broad smile.
“It was a human gesture. It was completely out of character.”
Yet in the days that followed, nothing happened.
“I kept thinking, ‘How many other steps are there? How high does it have to go? Does it have to go to Kim Jong Un?’”
Later that same day, however, KCNA, the official North Korean news agency, released the text of Newman’s confession, and put the video of him reading the statement online. The Kuwol connection was a bombshell, and suddenly added a whole new dimension to the situation.
Newman’s family was immensely relieved to see him alive, but found the televised confession profoundly disturbing.
“It was a very hard thing to observe,” said his wife, Lee. “We didn’t know what the circumstances were. His hand was shaking. His handwriting was not what we were accustomed to seeing. So we knew he was under stress.”
At 6 a.m. on Saturday, December 7, Newman’s interpreter knocked on the door and told him to get dressed. An hour later, another “investigator”— higher-ranking than the one Newman had been dealing with — arrived, along with a new interpreter.
The official had stunning news. He told Merrill he was being released, but then went through a series of specific points he wanted Newman to say after he left North Korea.
“I was supposed to say, I apologize for this, this, and this, and thank the government for releasing me.” The new “investigator” warned him again how close he had come to being sentenced to a long prison term in North Korea.
At the airport, his interpreter told him “I don’t know why they are letting you go.” But after six harrowing weeks, Merrill Newman was heading home. It appears that the North Koreans, having recognized their notion of Newman as an 85-year-old master spy had no basis in reality, concluded that, once face was saved through his “confession,” there was no benefit to holding him.
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In the case of Travis King, much will depend on how he is viewed in Pyongyang. Over the decades, a handful of serving American soldiers have defected and been allowed to live in North Korea. But others who have entered the country without permission have faced legal charges and imprisonment.
The critical calculation is likely to be how North Korea believes it can best make use of the episode at a time of growing tension with the US.
In early 2014, a month after his return, Newman got a call from the State Department. The North Koreans had given a document to the Swedish ambassador to send to him. Newman wondered: What on earth could it be?
In a gesture of astonishing chutzpah, the North Koreans were submitting a bill of $3,241 for his enforced stay at the Yanggakdo Hotel. They’d even added a $3 fee for “a lost plate.”
Newman asked the State Department whether paying might help the other Americans detained in North Korea, and was told no.
The bill remained unpaid.