Members of the former South Korean guerrilla group said in an interview last week with The Associated Press that Newman was their adviser. Some have expressed surprise that Newman would take the risk of visiting North Korea given his association with their group, which is still remembered with keen hatred in the North. Others were amazed Pyongyang still considered Newman a threat.
"Why did North Korea make such a big fuss?" Park Chan-wu, a former guerrilla who worked with Newman during the war, said Saturday. "It's been 60 years since he worked as our adviser."
The televised statement read last month by Newman said he was attempting to meet surviving guerrilla fighters he had trained during the conflict so he could reconnect them with their wartime colleagues living in South Korea, and that he had criticized the North during his recent trip.
Newman's political value had "expired" for North Korea, said Chang Yong Seok, a senior researcher at Seoul National University's Institute for Peace and Unification Studies. Newman's written apology and the TV broadcast were enough for Pyongyang to show outsiders that it has maintained its dignity — something the proud country views as paramount, said Chang.
There was relief in Newman's home state of California.
"He's a genuine and generous man, and we're all so relieved that he's coming home," said Dan Haifley, executive director of O'Neill Sea Odyssey, an ocean exploration program in Santa Cruz that the Newmans have supported.
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.
Before Newman, North Korea detained at least six Americans since 2009. Five of them have been either released or deported after prominent Americans like former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter travelled to Pyongyang.
"The release is vintage North Korea," Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank in Hawaii, said of Newman. "They always try to capture the attention away from something that might make (South Korea) look good and get the spotlight on them instead. Normally they do this by doing something negative. At least in this instance, it was a positive gesture."
Associated Press writers Eun-Young Jeong, Hyung-jin Kim and Josh Lederman in Seoul, Martha Mendoza in California, Didi Tang and Aritz Parra in Beijing contributed to this report.
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