Now that the State Department has relaxed some of its previous travel restrictions, the prospect of visiting the once forbidden land of North Korea has tempted many an adventurer. For Korean War veteran Merrill Newman, it was the chance of a lifetime.
Newman, 85, of Palo Alto, California had been waiting many years to return to Korea and finally saw his chance back in October. Having developed a keen interest in the country and the culture, Newman made arrangements with a London-based travel company called Juche Travel Services for a 10-day organized tour with travel companion, Bill Hamrdla. The trip had been carefully planned several months in advance.
According to Juche Travel company spokesman, David Thompson, "Mr. Newman had in place all necessary and valid travel documents to take his tour. We have no information concerning what has occurred to result in the current situation."
Based on correspondence with family members, Newman spoke very fondly of the places he visited and the people he met. He also commended the skills and knowledge of his tour guides.
Newman had completed his 10-day tour of the country and was on board a plane in Pyongyang destined for Beijing just five minutes shy of departure when North Korean officials boarded and removed him from the aircraft on October 26.
Information has yet to be released as to why Newman was detained or his physical treatment by North Korean authorities. As the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, the Swedish Embassy has acted as a mediator between Newman and his family.
Newman was reported to have a heart condition and only brought with him a 10-day supply of his medication to last him through the trip. Though his family sent more of his prescribed medication through the Swedish Embassy, there has been no word yet on whether or not he received it or has access to it.
Newman is currently one of two Americans being detained in North Korea at this time.
Kenneth Bae, who has been held since November 2012, was given a 15-year sentence to hard labor on charges of plotting against the government. As an infantry officer in the Korean War, it is possible that the North Korean government arrested Newman on similar suspicions.
According to Newman's son, Jeff Newman, his father's guides encountered North Korean authorities the day before his plane for Beijing was scheduled to leave. During the conversation, Newman's war records were briefly discussed. Jeff Newman reported to CNN that his father was "a bit bothered" by the situation, but later put it out of his mind as probably a minor issue.
Though travel restrictions to North Korea have been somewhat relaxed, the State Department still warns U.S. citizens against travelling there for risks of arbitrary arrests and detainment.
"There has to be a terrible misunderstanding," said Newman's travel companion Hamrdla. "I hope that the North Koreans will see this as a humanitarian matter and allow him to return to his family as soon as possible."