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North Korea vet returns home: 85-year-old North Korea vet free after captivity

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A North Korea vet returned home after he was held prisoner in North Korea. The 85-year-old North Korean veteran said the first thing he wanted to do when he got home was to take his shoes off. “It's been a great homecoming. I'm tired — but I'm with my family now," told 85-year-old Merrill Newman reporters when he arrived at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday, reported the Los Angeles Times on Dec. 7, 2013.

When reporters asked the North Korean vet what he planned on doing once he got home to Palo Alto, the 85-year-old said with a huge smile on his face, “probably take my shoes off."

Home for the North Korean vet is the United States; a home he was not sure he would ever be able to see again.

On Oct. 26, the North Korean vet who had been in the 1950-53 Korean War as part of a clandestine anti-communist army unit, was pulled off the airplane ready to depart the North Korean capital of Pyongyang and was taken into custody by North Korean security officials.

The 85-year-old retired tech executive had been in North Korea on a 10-day tour and the day before his capture, he had been speaking to guides about his experience during the Korean War.

From Oct. 26 until his release this weekend, Merrill Newman was held captive by North Korea for entering the country under "the guise of a tourist to confirm the whereabouts of the spies and terrorists who had been trained and dispatched by him."

After six weeks, North Korea released the 85-year-old vet because he admitted to North Korea’s accusations and apologized.

A statement by the official Korean Central News Agency cited as the reason for letting the North Korean vet go home that Merrill Newman admitted to his “crime” and regretted it.

"Taking into consideration his admittance of the act committed by him ... [the] apology made by him, his sincere repentance of it and his advanced age and health condition, [North Korea] deported him from the country from a humanitarian viewpoint.”

Besides the statement, North Korean officials also released a video confession in which Newman said he had been trying to contact survivors from his military unit and their families.

According to Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea specialist at Dongguk University in Seoul, the 85-year-old North Korean vet was most likely allowed to go home because of his advanced age. “It [North Korea] has likely realized that it cannot hold such an old man too long without getting international condemnation. It also wanted to show to the outside world that it could be flexible, and respected humanitarian concerns.”

After having been allowed to leave North Korea, Merrill Newman flew to Beijing and from there to San Francisco. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who was in Seoul meeting South Korean leaders at the time Merrill Newman was released, offered the 85-year-old U.S. veteran a ride home on Air Force Two, but Merrill Newman declined since he knew he would get home faster with his direct flight to San Francisco.

“I don’t blame him,” said Mr. Biden in a television interview. “I’d be on that flight, too.” Mr. Biden also reminded reporters that North Korea was still holding Kenneth Bae captive. Kenneth Bae is the Christian missionary who was sentenced in May to 15 years of hard labor for committing “hostile acts” against North Korea.

While the North Korean vet is happy to be home with his wife and son, many people are wondering why an 85-year-old man would return to a country that is known to hold anyone captive for whatsoever reason.

Donald P. Gregg, who is 86 years old and a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, said in regard to Merrill Newman’s trip to North Korea that “I understand him. I'm the same age. A lot of Marines want to go back. They are haunted by what they did during the Korean War and want to bring closure.”

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