SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea on Saturday freed an 85-year-old U.S. veteran of the Korean War after a weekslong detention, ending the saga of Merrill Newman's attempt to visit the North as a tourist six decades after he oversaw a group of South Korean wartime guerrillas still loathed by Pyongyang.
North Korea made the decision after Newman, who was detained since late October, apologized for his alleged crimes, which Pyongyang linked in part to his work with the South Korean partisan group. North Korea also cited his age and medical condition.
"I am very glad to be on my way home," a smiling Newman told reporters after arriving at the airport in Beijing from Pyongyang. "And I appreciate the tolerance the (North Korean) government has given to me to be on my way."
"I feel good," Newman said, adding with a laugh that the first thing he planned to do was "go home and see my wife."
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who is traveling in Seoul, welcomed the release and said he talked by phone with Newman in Beijing, offering him a ride home on Air Force Two. Biden said Newman declined because of a direct flight to his home state of California, which he took later Saturday.
Newman's son, Jeffrey, said he spoke briefly with his father from Beijing and that he was "in excellent spirits and eager to be reunited with his family."
"As you can imagine this has been a very difficult ordeal for us as a family, and particularly for him," he said in a statement read outside his home in Pasadena, adding that they will say more about this unusual journey after Newman has rested.
Last month, Newman read from an awkwardly worded alleged confession that apologized for, among other things, killing North Koreans during the war. They were his first words since being taken off a plane Oct. 26 by North Korean authorities while preparing to leave the country after a 10-day tour. Analysts questioned whether the statement was coerced, and former South Korean guerrillas who had worked with Newman and fought behind enemy lines during the war disputed some of the details.
Newman's detention highlights the extreme sensitivity with which Pyongyang views the 1950-53 war, which ended without a formal peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula sill technically in a state of war. The conflict is a regular focus of North Korean propaganda and media, which accuse Pyongyang's wartime enemies Washington and Seoul of carrying on the fighting by continuing to push for the North's overthrow.
"In the United States, we revealingly refer to the Korean War as the 'forgotten war.' Most Americans do not realize that memory of the war's violence is at the foundation of North Korean national identity," said Christine Hong, an Asia specialist at the University of California at Santa Cruz who has twice visited North Korea.
Tension remains on the Korean Peninsula, though Pyongyang's angry rhetoric against the U.S. and South Korea has toned down compared with its torrent of springtime threats to launch nuclear strikes and restart nuclear bomb fuel production.