A typical foreigner visiting North Korea generally assumes he or she is out of the hands of guides, known as “minders,” after boarding the Air Koryo flight back to Beijing.
In the case of 85-year-old Merrill Newman of Palo Alto, California, the getaway from Pyongyang was not all that simple. His son, Jeffrey, says he’s been held for four weeks – ever since a North Korean officer ordered him off the plane on Oct. 26 after he’d already gone through customs and was about to take off.
Glyn Davies, US envoy to North Korea, today urged officials in Pyongyang to, "resolve the issue, and to allow our citizens to go free."
What could have happened that would cause the North Koreans to hold Mr. Newman?
Yes, as a passenger traveling with him recalled, he may have argued with his minders about the Korean War, when he served in the US Army.
North Korea to this day calls the war a huge “victory” for the northern side against the US, South Korea, and their UN allies. The North often refers to the signing of the armistice at Panmunjom in July, 1953 a “surrender.”
Surely, though, if the North Koreans had wanted to get Newman for that disagreement, they would have done so well before he boarded the plane.
North Korea has regularly detained or arrested foreigners. Sometimes the reason relates to underground missionary activity. Some detentions appear to be undertaken to remind citizens of the North why the nation adopts a war or "military first" posture regarding the outside world, or they may be used as a "card" in ongoing negotiations.
A year ago this month the regime detained an American citizen, Kenneth Bae, born in South Korea, who was acting as a leader for a tour group out of China that was allegedly an underground Christian missionary operation. Mr. Bae was arrested and sentenced to serve 15 years in a North Korea prison camp on charges of subversion.
A couple of theories derive from my nine visits to North Korea, including seven in which I entered and left via Pyongyang, most recently in July of last year.
Although there is nothing to suggest that these theories explain Newman’s detention, visitors often consider keeping for themselves a souvenir or two from their rooms. Anything with an emblem of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) or Panmunjom, any propaganda picture, poses a temptation.
Minders generally warn against such petty thievery in the name of souvenir-hunting. They warn there have been instances in which foreigners have had to pay hefty fines for taking stuff. Most visitors don’t take the chance – though it’s not unknown to leave undetected with a pilfered towel.
Another temptation, especially for one with strong views critical of North Korea, is to leave a note denouncing the North. Scrawling an obscenity in soap across a bathroom mirror is an idea that has occurred to more than one visitor.
Better yet, how about if he left a letter on the bed that is critical of the regime?
Few visitors actually do yield to the temptation to fulfill such a fantasy. In visits to North Korea, this writer has joked with fellow travelers about doing just that. I even speculated in one conversation on whether they’d drag me off the plane as soon as they found out – or even order the plane, in flight, to turn around and deposit me at the airport.
In fact, I recall answering my own extremely hypothetical question: “I bet they would.”