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US vet detained in NKorea oversaw guerrilla group

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Noth Korea Detained American

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - Six decades before he went to North Korea as a curious tourist, Merrill Newman supervised a group of South Korean guerrillas during the Korean War who were perhaps the most hated and feared fighters in the North, former members of the group say.

Some of those guerrillas, interviewed this week by The Associated Press, remember Newman as a handsome, thin American lieutenant who got them rice, clothes and weapons during the later stages of the 1950-53 war, but largely left the fighting to them.

North Korea apparently remembered him, too.

The 85-year-old war veteran has been detained in Pyongyang since being forced off a plane set to leave the country Oct. 26 after a 10-day trip. He appeared this weekend on North Korean state TV apologizing for alleged wartime crimes in what was widely seen as a coerced statement.

"Why did he go to North Korea?" asked Park Boo Seo, a former member of the Kuwol partisan unit, which is still loathed in Pyongyang and glorified in Seoul for the damage it inflicted on the North during the war. "The North Koreans still gnash their teeth at the Kuwol unit."

Park and several other former guerrillas said they recognized Newman from his past visits to Seoul in 2003 and 2010 - when they ate raw fish and drank soju, Korean liquor - and from the TV footage, which was also broadcast in South Korea.

Newman was scheduled to visit South Korea to meet former Kuwol fighters following his North Korea trip. Park said about 30 elderly former guerrillas, some carrying bouquets of flowers, waited in vain for several hours for him at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, on Oct. 27 before news of his detention was released.

Newman has yet to tell his side of the story, aside from the televised statement, and his family hasn't responded to requests for comment on his wartime activities. 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.

Newman's detention is just the most recent point of tension on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea has detained another American for more than a year, and there's still wariness in Seoul and Washington after North Korea's springtime threats of nuclear war and vows to restart its nuclear fuel production.

According to his televised statement, Newman's alleged crimes include training guerrillas whose attacks continued even after the war ended, and ordering operations that led to the death of dozens of North Korean soldiers and civilians. He also said in the statement he attempted to meet surviving Kuwol members.

Former guerrillas in Seoul said Newman served as an adviser for Kuwol, one of dozens of such partisan groups established by the U.S.-military during the Korean War. They have a book about the unit that Newman signed, praising Kuwol and writing that he was "proud to have served with you." The book includes a photo of Newman that appears to be taken within the last 10-15 years.

But the guerrillas say most of the North's charges were fabricated or exaggerated.

Newman oversaw guerrilla actions and gave the fighters advice, but he wasn't involved in day-to-day operations, according to the former rank-and-file members and analysts. He also gave them rice, clothes and weapons from the U.S. military when they obtained key intelligence and captured North Korean and Chinese troops. All Kuwol guerrillas came to South Korea shortly after the war's end and haven't infiltrated the North since then, they say, so there are no surviving members in North Korea.

"The charges don't make sense," said Park, 80.

In the final months of the war, Newman largely stayed on a frontline island, living in a small wooden house, said Park Young, an 81-year-old former guerrilla.

"He ate alone and slept alone and lived alone," said Park, one of 200 guerrillas stationed on the Island.

When the U.S. Eighth Army retreated from the Yalu River separating North Korea and China in late 1950, some 6,000 to 10,000 Koreans initially declared their willingness to fight for the United States, according to a U.S. Army research study on wartime partisan actions that was declassified in 1990.

The report says the U.S. Army provided training and direction to the partisans, who had some "measurable results." But ultimately the campaigns "did not represent a significant contribution," in part because of a lack of training and experience of Korean and U.S. personnel in guerrilla warfare.

Former Kuwol fighters claim to have killed 1,500 North Korean soldiers and captured 600 alive. About 1,270 Kuwol members perished during the war, according to surviving unit members.

The guerrillas aren't alone in questioning Newman's trip to North Korea.

"Newman was very naive to discuss his partisan background with the North Koreans," Bruce Cumings, a history professor specializing in Korea at the University of Chicago, said in an email. "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."

But analyst Cho Sung-hun with the state-run Institute for Military History Compilation in Seoul said it's "not weird" for war veterans to try to visit former battle grounds before they die.

Cho, who interviewed Newman in 2003 for a book on guerrilla warfare during the Korean War, described him as a "gentle American citizen" and said North Korea should not trigger a new source of tension with his detention.

Some analysts see Newman's alleged confession as a prelude to his release, possibly allowing the North Koreans to send him home and save face without going through a lengthy legal proceeding.

North Korea has detained at least seven Americans since 2009 and five of them have been either released or deported. Korean-American missionary and tour operator Kenneth Bae has been held for more than year.

The Korean War is still an extremely sensitive topic in North Korea. It ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula still technically at war.

"It seems absurd from a public relations standpoint to arrest an 85-year-old man who came with goodwill," Cumings said. "But the North Koreans are still fighting the Korean War and grasp every chance they get to remind Americans that the war has never ended."


AP writers Eun-Young Jeong in Seoul, Matthew Pennington in Washington and Martha Mendoza in California contributed to this report.

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jwilli1251 December 04 2013 at 5:52 AM

No can do. We have no camoflauge dentures or walkers. And there is no tactical motorized scooters either. Sit home and wonder on something else. Say, you can always invade the Korean War monument, cry, blubber and get a picture taken with Bachman or some other foul mouthed blasphemous TEA Pottie REMF. You'll be called their hero when you blame your age on Obama.

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Buddy Maxwell December 04 2013 at 3:00 AM

Maybe we should retaliate by holding some of the North Koreans that are presently in U.S. and see how they like dragging the past out of the cobwebs of history. You want to start the war all over again? Hey, some of old vets are ready and willing to volunteer as cannon fodder just to shut them up! I'm 82 years old, and was there too! They ought to consider themselves lucky we didn't bother to nuke them right off the map!

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mount carmine December 04 2013 at 12:56 AM

Maybe they were looking for me,

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olympictorchrun4 December 03 2013 at 11:50 PM

A few weeks ago OB toured the former prison of Nelson Mandela on an Island in South Africa. They were unable to detain him due to lack of space. North Korea on the other hand would not turn him down, they will always find a way to accommodate Marxist/Socialist Ideologue. It would be an educational lesson to straighten him out for a greater America!

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knoxwarner December 03 2013 at 11:49 PM

It should be remembered that -- thanks to the Kim regime -- the Korean War is to North Korea what the time period from 1776 to 2000 is to us. It represents most of their experience with international politics, and the events to them are like the events in the Bible to most Christians. In the Kim version of the war, South Korea invaded North Korea, but NK forces under Kim Il-Sung's leadership drove them back and overran SK, when the US invaded NK. Il-Sung layed a cunning trap for us by withdrawing all the way to the Chinese border, and when we took the bait, he drove us back down to the 39th parallel. A genuine pacifist, he was tired of war by then and just called a halt to the whole thing. Russia and China played very minor roles around the periphery and -- in any case -- Il-Sung just sloughed them off after the war and set up the country with him as its God (literally). Today, it's the Westboro Baptist Church of the international community, and would have old shopping carts littering its miniscule front lawn between the NO TRESPASSING signs, if it could afford them. The war was both their Genesis and Exodus, so they remember a lot more detail about it than we would, especially since we really did lay waste to their country by bombing everything that was bombable. I'm not an apologist. I hate the Kims and hope I live long enough to see them and their cohorts receive just retribution.

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SSG JOHN OHERN December 03 2013 at 11:47 PM

why in the world would n korea hold this guy hostage as old as he is north korea please release him he has lived a long life let him live out the rest of his life with his family the war is long over and if n korea does not release him and he dies there then i would hope the american special forces pay a visit to the n korean president with all the fire power they have

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kbaxters December 03 2013 at 11:43 PM


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mindbendere December 03 2013 at 11:37 PM

send jane fonda to get the man out.

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tlcmiguel December 03 2013 at 11:20 PM

I think the Korean and the Vietnam war were mistakes in the first place. We won a half and the South is thriving. We lost in Vietnam and we are now trading partners with the whole country. We would have been better of to have not gotten invlaved in the first place.

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brennemanbelkin December 03 2013 at 11:17 PM

It takes a certain kind of fool to go to North Korea, irrespective of your background.

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1 reply to brennemanbelkin's comment
knoxwarner December 03 2013 at 11:59 PM

I see it like solving the puzzle cube in the Hellraiser movie series. The only difference, really, is that you stand a better chance of getting out of North Korea than Hell. Trust me on this.

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