US war veteran freed by N.Korea arrives home
Korean War veteran Merrill Newman (L), accompanied by his wife Lee (R), speaks to the press after arriving at San Francisco International Airport on December 7, 2013 following his release from detention in North Korea.
A visibly relieved Merrill Newman made a brief statement after landing at San Francisco airport from Beijing, saying he was delighted to be back following his release on humanitarian grounds by the communist state, which said the American had cited his "sincere repentance."
"It has been a great homecoming, and I am tired, but can be with my family now," said the Korean War veteran, his wife and son by his side.
"Thank you all for the support we got."
The official Korean Central News Agency said earlier that Newman's age and health -- he has a heart condition -- were factors that led to his release.
Newman was plucked off a plane in October as he was leaving Pyongyang following a tourist visit.
He was reportedly a member of a US special forces unit during the Korean War which helped a clandestine group of Korean partisans strike at communist forces well behind enemy lines.
Last week, Pyongyang for the first time officially admitted holding Newman, saying he was detained for "hostile acts" after entering the country "under the guise of a tourist."
The veteran's release coincided with US Vice President Joe Biden's visit to the DMZ, the demilitarized zone that has split the Korean peninsula since the 1950-1953 Korean War, the world's last Cold War frontier.
"The DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of North Korea) today released someone they should never have had in the first place, Mr. Newman," Biden said.
"It's a positive thing they've done," added Biden, on the last stop of a three-country Asia trip.
Biden also urged Pyongyang to free another US citizen, Kenneth Bae, a 45-year-old tour operator arrested a year ago and sentenced to 15 years' hard labor on charges of seeking to topple the government.
Newman's family said he was detained on October 26 shortly before take-off from the North Korean capital. Biden's office said the vice president had spoken to him by telephone.
"I offered him a ride home on Air Force Two, but as he pointed out, there's a direct flight to San Francisco, so I don't blame him, I'd be on that flight too," Biden told reporters.
Dongguk University professor Kim Yong-Hyun, a North Korea expert in Seoul, said Pyongyang had freed Newman in a bid to facilitate dialogue with Washington. Biden said he had no direct role in securing his release.
"North Korea knows that the detention of a sick, old man will aggravate relations with the United States," Kim told AFP.
North Korean authorities had accused Newman of committing crimes both as a tourist and during his participation in the Korean War six decades ago.
The reclusive country also claimed that Newman masterminded espionage and subversive activities during the war and was involved in the killing of North Korean soldiers and innocent civilians.
Newman, a retired financial executive, had filmed a video apology confessing to his crimes.
The North released the footage and photos showing Newman reading the apology, which was dated November 9 and ran to nearly 600 words.
Pyongyang claimed Newman had intended to meet surviving soldiers of the guerrilla unit he worked with during the war and pray for the souls of the dead during his trip to North Korea.
But friends and relatives have said the grandfather, who was on an organized tour, was detained due to a "misunderstanding."
South Korean veterans who served with Newman during the war have said North Korea fabricated charges against the American. They said Newman had tried to visit Seoul following a trip to Pyongyang.
The autocratic regime has in the past freed detained Americans after visits from high-level emissaries.
Pyongyang runs one of the world's most secretive states and independently verifying official reports is notoriously difficult.
The communist regime is widely thought to govern with an iron fist, with frequent public executions and up to 200,000 political prisoners languishing in labor camps.
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