Calif. Grandfather, 85, Detained in North Korea

It's unclear why the 85-year-old was taken off the plane

By Kris Sanchez and Chris Roberts
|  Thursday, Nov 21, 2013  |  Updated 7:52 AM EDT
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Merrill Newman, an 85-year-old grandfather from Palo Alto, is reportedly being held by authorities in North Korea. Kris Sanchez reports.

Merrill Newman, an 85-year-old grandfather from Palo Alto, is reportedly being held by authorities in North Korea. Kris Sanchez reports.

Merrill Newman, an 85-year-old grandfather from Palo Alto, Calif., is reportedly being held by authorities in North Korea.

The San Jose Mercury News reported that Newman was visiting the reclusive, totalitarian country. He was scheduled to depart on an Oct. 26 flight, but North Korean authorities removed him from the plane prior to takeoff.

He has been in custody since then, according to reports.

Newman went on a 10-day trip to North Korea with his friend Bob Hamrdla and a tour group out of Beijing. The U.S. State Department, which does not have formal diplomatic relations with North Korea, did not confirm his detention, but did say prior to his trip that North Korea has been "arbitrarily detaining U.S. citizens and not allowing them to depart the country."

A statement from Hamrdla, Newman’s travelling companion, reads, "There has to be a terrible misunderstanding. I hope that the North Koreans will see this is a humanitarian matter and allow him to return to his family as soon as possible."

The Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, is working on the situation, the newspaper reported.

It's unclear why the North Korean authorities would want to detain Newman, who taught high school for decades in Berkeley and Livermore. He'd been to Korea as an infantry officer during the Korean War, the newspaper reported.

“There are parts of this that are, even by North Korean standards, out of the ordinary,” said Dan Sneider, associate director for research at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford.

Another U.S. citizen, Kenneth Bae, was arrested a year ago and sentenced to 15 years hard labor by North Korean authorities, the newspaper reported.

That North Korea has yet to formally admit holding Newman is "very unusual," according to Sneider. It may indicate that the North Koreans "don't know what to do with him yet," he said.

Sneider said North Korea might hope to use Newman to get something from the United States, as in 2009, when former president Bill Clinton visited Pyongyang to secure the release of two American journalists.

MORE: Eric Schmidt Sees Google's Role in North Korea Education

“I hope that the North Korean government understands this is not a very smart thing to do under any circumstances,” Sneider said, “and they will see their way to do the compassionate and the intelligent thing and release this American citizen.”

North Korea's new leader, Kim Jong Un, is reported to have had his ex-girlfriend killed by firing squad.

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