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American Held In North Korea Reportedly Oversaw Guerrilla Group In War

Park Boo Seo (right), a former member of the Korean Kuwol partisan unit, speaks about Merrill Newman, an American tourist detained in North Korea. Newman supervised the group during the Korean War.
Ahn Young-joon
Park Boo Seo (right), a former member of the Korean Kuwol partisan unit, speaks about Merrill Newman, an American tourist detained in North Korea. Newman supervised the group during the Korean War.

Merrill Newman, the 85-year-old American war veteran and tourist who was arrested in North Korea in October, once supervised a guerrilla group of "perhaps the most hated and feared fighters" of the Korean War, some of his former comrades say. That's according to The Associated Press, which offers details about Newman's service as a possible explanation for his detention.

"Why did he go to North Korea?" Park Boo Seo, a former member of the Kuwol partisan unit, said in an AP interview. "The North Koreans still gnash their teeth at the Kuwol unit."

Park, 80, and other former guerrillas tell the news agency that they recall Newman as a thin lieutenant who "got them rice, clothes and weapons during the later stages of the 1950-53 war, but largely left the fighting to them," according to the news service.

Other potential reasons for Newman's detention include his name. Another American lieutenant named Merrill Newman also served in the Korean War, earning a Silver Star for "inflicting heavy casualties" and refusing to flee in the face of overwhelming odds.

That Merrill Newman, a former Marine whose middle initial is H rather than E, told ABC last week that the thought had crossed his mind that it could be a case of mistaken identity, that "in the process of maybe Googling, like anybody can," the North Koreans had become confused.

Merrill E. Newman was pulled from his return flight from North Korea on Oct. 26, one day after he discussed his Army record with North Korean officials. An American friend who was with Newman on the trip has called the situation a misunderstanding, adding that Newman appeared anxious after the meeting.

Last week, North Korean officials released a video in which Newman "apologized for committing 'indelible crimes against' the country in the past and during his current trip," as Eyder wrote for The Two-Way on Saturday.

In the text of that apology, Newman mentions the Kuwol unit repeatedly and states that he gave "300 people with barbarity" military and guerrilla training. He also acknowledged a plan to find members of the unit during his trip, which was also to include a stop in South Korea.

"Please forgive me," the statement reads.

The apology also includes a promise to "tell the true features" of North Korea if he is allowed to leave — a signal that Newman might be allowed to return home.

As University of Chicago history professor Bruce Cumings reminds us, the Korean War ended with an armistice, leaving it in limbo. And he says North Korea seizes chances to remind the world of that fact.

"Newman was very naive to discuss his partisan background with the North Koreans," Cumings tells the AP. "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."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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