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

By Foster Klug & Hyung-Jin Kim

Associated Press

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 06:34 a.m. HST, Dec 03, 2013


SEOUL » Six decades before he went to North Korea as a curious tourist, Merrill Newman supervised a group of South Korean guerrillas during the Korean War who were perhaps the most hated and feared fighters in the North, former members of the group say.

Some of those guerrillas, interviewed this week by The Associated Press, remember Newman as a handsome, thin American lieutenant who got them rice, clothes and weapons during the later stages of the 1950-53 war, but largely left the fighting to them.

North Korea apparently remembered him, too.

The 85-year-old war veteran has been detained in Pyongyang since being forced off a plane set to leave the country Oct. 26 after a 10-day trip. He appeared this weekend on North Korean state TV apologizing for alleged wartime crimes in what was widely seen as a coerced statement.

"Why did he go to North Korea?" asked Park Boo Seo, a former member of the Kuwol partisan unit, which is still loathed in Pyongyang and glorified in Seoul for the damage it inflicted on the North during the war. "The North Koreans still gnash their teeth at the Kuwol unit."

Park and several other former guerrillas said they recognized Newman from his past visits to Seoul in 2003 and 2010 -- when they ate raw fish and drank soju, Korean liquor -- and from the TV footage, which was also broadcast in South Korea.

Newman was scheduled to visit South Korea to meet former Kuwol fighters following his North Korea trip. Park said about 30 elderly former guerrillas, some carrying bouquets of flowers, waited in vain for several hours for him at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, on Oct. 27 before news of his detention was released.

Newman has yet to tell his side of the story, aside from the televised statement, and his family hasn't responded to requests for comment on his wartime activities. Jeffrey Newman has previously said that his father, an avid traveler and retired finance executive from California, had always wanted to return to the country where he fought during the Korean War.

Newman's detention is just the most recent point of tension on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea has detained another American for more than a year, and there's still wariness in Seoul and Washington after North Korea's springtime threats of nuclear war and vows to restart its nuclear fuel production.

According to his televised statement, Newman's alleged crimes include training guerrillas whose attacks continued even after the war ended, and ordering operations that led to the death of dozens of North Korean soldiers and civilians. He also said in the statement he attempted to meet surviving Kuwol members.

Former guerrillas in Seoul said Newman served as an adviser for Kuwol, one of dozens of such partisan groups established by the U.S.-military during the Korean War. They have a book about the unit that Newman signed, praising Kuwol and writing that he was "proud to have served with you." The book includes a photo of Newman that appears to be taken within the last 10-15 years.

But the guerrillas say most of the North's charges were fabricated or exaggerated.

Newman oversaw guerrilla actions and gave the fighters advice, but he wasn't involved in day-to-day operations, according to the former rank-and-file members and analysts. He also gave them rice, clothes and weapons from the U.S. military when they obtained key intelligence and captured North Korean and Chinese troops. All Kuwol guerrillas came to South Korea shortly after the war's end and haven't infiltrated the North since then, they say, so there are no surviving members in North Korea.

"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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busterb wrote:
Why would the AP publish this account when the guy is still being held?
on December 3,2013 | 06:02AM
Manawai wrote:
I don't think it's news to the North.
on December 3,2013 | 08:13AM
palani wrote:
The Korean war never ended. The armistice that both sides agreed to was intended to temporarily cease hostilities until a final peace settlement could be reached. To date, there is still no peace settlement, so these Kuwol fighters could not have continued fighting "after the war had ended". North Korea, like Iran, is a rogue, outlaw regime.
on December 3,2013 | 06:12AM
HanabataDays wrote:
Distinction without a difference. Evidently they kept fighting "after the armistie was signed and other hostilities had ceased", then, if you prefer.
on December 3,2013 | 06:49AM
allie wrote:
This comment has been deleted.
on December 3,2013 | 06:58AM
Mythman wrote:
Ms Allie, when the "new" state boundaries were drawn in the middle east, the new nations had no armies of their own of any size with which to defend their new territories so the US and Great Britain assumed that job, given our vastly larger military power. These are not full blown wars, like One and Two were - these are regional squabbles in comparison. Google the total estimated number of fatalities in One and Two for a comparison. Russia was on a conquest spree.
on December 3,2013 | 08:35AM
loquaciousone wrote:
I don't think the North Koreans like this dude coming over to gloat...what was he thinking by crossing the border?
on December 3,2013 | 06:30AM
livinginhawaii wrote:
I actually can understand the DPRK point of view on this. Lets say 48 years from now some alquaida dude who trained a World Trade Center terrorist comes to visit the US. Would he not be detained as well?
on December 3,2013 | 06:43AM
hon2255 wrote:
This was during a war not a terrorist attack The man should have stayed out of N Korea but Dprk has no right to detain 85 yr old man Kim jun Un go kiss my a-ss
on December 3,2013 | 07:04AM
livinginhawaii wrote:
Correct me if I am wrong but I don't recall that that the US ever declared war and ended up calling it a police action or undeclared military action. Didn't Rumsfeld declare war on alqaida?
on December 3,2013 | 01:31PM
lowtone123 wrote:
With the current and long running political climate in NK the question is still why did he go there?
on December 3,2013 | 07:02AM
BO0o07 wrote:
Naive is the bottom line on anyone visiting North Korea and end up being detained. Even if you don't have anything in your background that the North Koreans can use against you, there is still a possiblility of being detained on trumped up charges.
on December 3,2013 | 07:22AM
krusha wrote:
Any American is crazy to visit North Korea for any reason. Stay far away from that place. They are just looking for pawns to broker deals to lift sanctions, and any American citizen is worth a lot of political money to them, sort of like ransom.
on December 3,2013 | 07:36AM
Mythman wrote:
Sanctions work and they know having one hostage amounts to nothing wrt sanctions.Look what sanctions did to Cuba as one example.
on December 3,2013 | 08:37AM
iwanaknow wrote:
The tour business has found a way to make money, it's the American Way.....what other rouge countries out there that want to make a buck or two?
on December 3,2013 | 07:55AM
Manawai wrote:
You don't enter the cage of a tiger, especially a sickly deranged one, without some form of protection. I'm sorry but Newman asked for it. How could he be so naive to not understand that all the North Koreans have is their long-standing hate of the South and the U.S.?
on December 3,2013 | 08:18AM
cojef wrote:
Very true! Sound like a true Chinese philosopher with added emphassis on the "deranged one". Guess his age did not help him become wiser and the his naivete is beyond comprhension. Since 1950, North Korea has been unpredictable and would not let an opportunity like this slip by, just to irritate the US and create futher tension.
on December 3,2013 | 10:07AM
Eradication wrote:
I do not believe this will end up well for this man. Not sure why he would enter North Korea in the first place. Maybe Dennis Rodman can call up his buddy and work something out. Maybe get him a Michael Jordan autograph B-ball. All kidding aside this was a MAJOR error in judgment.
on December 3,2013 | 10:43AM
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