Special Report

North Korea’s Disappearing Man

Behind Merrill Newman's arrest and release.

By 12.9.13

If you run a police state such as North Korea (a.k.a. “The People’s Republic of North Korea”) publicity is almost always bad, so you avoid it if possible. There are occasional exceptions and the North Korea authorities spotted one a month ago. A guided tour group was about to leave after a week’s visit when, in a last-minute review of the passenger list, an operative noticed that one of the visitors had not only been a U.S. Army veteran of the Korean War, but also may have been in counter-intelligence. With that, they took Merrill Newman, a retired California businessman, off the plane and held him. He may have been on a sinister mission, they hinted. 

This ran widely in short articles in U.S. newspapers and television and very conveniently obscured thinly covered reports from South Korean sources that ruler Kim Jong-un had fired his Uncle, Jang Song Thaek, the husband of Aunt Kyong-hui Kim. Jang was widely considered to be the government’s No. 2 man and was the one had been designated to teach his novice nephew the ropes when he inherited the emperor’s job upon the death of his father, Kim Jong-il.

Jang disappeared from public view about the time Merrill Newman was taken off the airplane. Rumors abound. Had he gone into hiding? Retired to a mountain cave? Been dropped from an airplane into the China Sea? We may never know. 

Meanwhile, a third North Korea story has circulated, but not widely. It has been seen mostly by policy and human rights specialists. It is the third report by the Committee on Human Rights for North Korea, covering in detail what is known of the network for prison camps of the government of North Korea, which insists it has no “political” prisoners. The CHRNK has been diligently coordinating reviews of satellite photographs with first-person interviews with a number of escaped/released refugee prisoners and former guards. It says the total number of political prisoners may have once been as high as 200,000 but is now about 120,000. It notes that three generations ago, the authorities first began rounding up multi-generation families whose most senior members were suspected of being dissidents. All generations of them were sentenced, in effect, to life in a labor camp. Mortality being what it is, many of these have now been succumbing to malnutrition, illness, and aging. Satellite photos in the new report indicate some camps are being closed, others expanded. There is evidence of large movements of prisoners from one to another in the middle of the night.

Meanwhile, the Merrill Newman story had a happy ending last weekend. On Saturday he landed in San Francisco, united with his family. I had learned about his retention in Pyongyang early when a college fraternity brother wrote that Merrill was a member. That triggered my memory. He must have graduated (University of California, Berkeley) just before I became a freshman. About three years later he began attending Saturday football luncheons and annual Founders’ Day dinner — back from war service in Korea. (Several others of our members had been in Korea, in the early Fifties.) He must have been commissioned through ROTC, for he ended up training a cadre of Korean men who had been recruited to engage in guerrilla activities behind enemy lines. Back home, he never discussed this. 

No wonder the DPRK wanted to keep him off that outbound flight. A week or so ago he appeared on North Korean television reading an awkward “confession” that he had committed grievous crimes against the freedom-loving people of North Korea. It turns out that, during that tourist visit, he hoped to reunite with one or more of the men he had trained long ago. Risky business, as it turned out.

Thus, in one swoop, North Korea had a splashy propaganda “score,” its aging prisoner had been sent home on “humanitarian” grounds, and the country’s No. 2 man, who had disappeared, was still, well, disappeared.

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About the Author

Peter Hannaford, who died on September 5,  was closely associated with the late President Reagan for a number of years. His most recent book, Washington Merry-Go-Round: The Drew Pearson Diaries, 1960-69, of which he is editor, has just been published.