North Korea has detained at least six Americans since 2009, often for alleged missionary work, but it is unusual for a tourist to be arrested. The North’s secretive, authoritarian government is sensitive about foreign travelers, and tourists are closely monitored. Analysts say it has used detained Americans as diplomatic pawns in a long-running standoff with the United States over the North’s nuclear bomb production, something it denies.
Speaking today to reporters in Beijing, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davies wouldn’t confirm Newman’s detention but said, generally, that Washington was working with the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, which acts as America’s protecting power because Washington and Pyongyang don’t have official diplomatic relations, “to try to move this issue along and of course calling on North Korea ... to resolve the issue and to allow our citizens to go free.”
Merrill Newman was traveling with his friend, Bob Hamrdla, who was allowed to return. Hamrdla said in a statement that “there has to be a terrible misunderstanding” and asked for Newman to be quickly returned to his family.
Jeffrey Newman said his father always wanted to visit North Korea and took lessons in the language before leaving on the nine-day trip. Newman said he believed the inspiration came from the three years his father spent as an infantry officer in the Korean War.