December 3, 2013

U.S. vet detained in North Korea oversaw guerrilla group

Merrill Newman supervised a group of South Korean fighters hated and feared by the North during the Korean War.

By Hyung-jin Kim And Foster Klug
The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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FILE - This 2005 file photo provided by the Palo Alto Weekly shows Merrill Newman, a retired finance executive and Red Cross volunteer, in Palo Alto, Calif. North Korea state media say U.S. tourist Newman, who has been detained for more than a month, has apologized for alleged crimes during the Korean War and for “hostile acts” against the state during a recent trip. There was no direct word from 85-year old Newman and his alleged apology released Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, couldn’t be independently confirmed. Pyongyang, North Korea, has been accused of previously coercing statements from detainees.

The Associated Press

“The charges don’t make sense,” said Park, 80.

In the final months of the war, Newman largely stayed on a frontline island, living in a small wooden house, said Park Young, an 81-year-old former guerrilla.

“He ate alone and slept alone and lived alone,” said Park, one of 200 guerrillas stationed on the Island.

When the U.S. Eighth Army retreated from the Yalu River separating North Korea and China in late 1950, some 6,000 to 10,000 Koreans initially declared their willingness to fight for the United States, according to a U.S. Army research study on wartime partisan actions that was declassified in 1990.

The report says the U.S. Army provided training and direction to the partisans, who had some “measurable results.” But ultimately the campaigns “did not represent a significant contribution,” in part because of a lack of training and experience of Korean and U.S. personnel in guerrilla warfare.

Former Kuwol fighters claim to have killed 1,500 North Korean soldiers and captured 600 alive. About 1,270 Kuwol members perished during the war, according to surviving unit members.

The guerrillas aren’t alone in questioning Newman’s trip to North Korea.

“Newman was very naive to discuss his partisan background with the North Koreans,” Bruce Cumings, a history professor specializing in Korea at the University of Chicago, said in an email. “The South Korean partisans were possibly the most hated group of people in the North, except for out-and-out spies and traitors from their own side.”

But analyst Cho Sung-hun with the state-run Institute for Military History Compilation in Seoul said it’s “not weird” for war veterans to try to visit former battle grounds before they die.

Cho, who interviewed Newman in 2003 for a book on guerrilla warfare during the Korean War, described him as a “gentle American citizen” and said North Korea should not trigger a new source of tension with his detention.

Some analysts see Newman’s alleged confession as a prelude to his release, possibly allowing the North Koreans to send him home and save face without going through a lengthy legal proceeding.

North Korea has detained at least seven Americans since 2009 and five of them have been either released or deported. Korean-American missionary and tour operator Kenneth Bae has been held for more than year.

The Korean War is still an extremely sensitive topic in North Korea. It ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula still technically at war.

“It seems absurd from a public relations standpoint to arrest an 85-year-old man who came with goodwill,” Cumings said. “But the North Koreans are still fighting the Korean War and grasp every chance they get to remind Americans that the war has never ended.”

AP writers Eun-Young Jeong in Seoul, Matthew Pennington in Washington and Martha Mendoza in California contributed to this report.

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