North Korea on Saturday freed an 85-year-old U.S. veteran of the Korean War after a weekslong detention, ending the saga of Merrill Newman's attempt to visit the North as a tourist six decades after he oversaw a group of South Korean wartime guerrillas still loathed by Pyongyang.
North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency said it made the decision because 85-year-old Merrill Newman had apologized for his alleged crimes during the Korean War and on a recent trip to the country and because of his age and medical condition.
"I'm very glad to be on my way home," Newman told NBC News at the Beijing airport, where officials from the U.S. Embassy met with him. "And I appreciate the tolerance that the government of the DPRK has given to me to be on my way."
Newman also said the first thing he'd like to do is to go home and see his wife.
His family late Friday released the following statement:
"We are absolutely delighted to confirm that Merrill Newman is on his way home after having been released by the DPRK. We had a chance to speak briefly with Merrill, who was in Beijing after having arrived from Pyongyang. He is in excellent spirits and eager to be reunited with his family."
U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said her department is "pleased that Mr. Merrill Newman has been allowed to depart the DPRK and re-join his family."
"We welcome the DPRK’s decision to release him," the statement read.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who is traveling in Seoul, welcomed the release and said he talked by phone with Newman in Beijing, offering him a ride home on Air Force Two. Biden said Newman declined because of a direct flight to his home state of California, which he took later Saturday.
Newman's son, Jeffrey, said he spoke briefly with his father from Beijing and that he was "in excellent spirits and eager to be reunited with his family."
"As you can imagine this has been a very difficult ordeal for us as a family, and particularly for him," he said in a statement read outside his home in Pasadena, adding that they will say more about this unusual journey after Newman has rested.
It wasn't clear if Newman's alleged confession shown on state TV last month was coerced.
He was taken off a plane Oct. 26 by North Korean authorities while preparing to leave the country after a 10-day tour.
A former group of South Korean guerrillas say Newman advised them as they fought behind enemy lines during the war. Some members have expressed surprise that Newman would take the risk of visiting North Korea given his role with their group, which is still loathed and remembered in the North.
Authorities in Pyongyang claimed Newman apologized for killing North Koreans during the 1950-53 Korean War, attempting to meet surviving guerrilla fighters he had training during the conflict and reconnect them with their wartime colleagues living in South Korea, and criticizing the North during his recent trip.
Newman's comments haven't been independently confirmed. North Korea has a history of allegedly coercing statements from detainees.
Newman's detention came as tension remains on the Korean Peninsula though Pyongyang's rhetoric against the U.S. and South Korea has toned down in recent weeks compared with its torrent of springtime threats to launch nuclear wars.
Before Newman, North Korea has detained at least six Americans since 2009 and five of them have been either released or deported after prominent Americans like former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter traveled to Pyongyang.
The country has held for more than a year the sixth detainee, a Korean-American missionary and tour operator, Kenneth Bae, for alleged subversion. Bae's family has released a statement regarding the return of Newman:
"We are pleased to hear that Mr. Newman was released from DPRK. We have been praying for him and are very happy that his family will have him at the head of their table for the holidays. We believe that our Kenneth should also come home soon. We are thankful for all who are advocating on Kenneth's behalf and for any ongoing dialogue with the DPRK government. We have faith in our government to bring Kenneth home, and we dearly wish that we will also have joyful holidays with Kenneth."
Statement from U.S. State Department:
We are pleased that Mr. Merrill Newman has been allowed to depart the DPRK and re-join his family. We welcome the DPRK’s decision to release him.
This positive decision by the DPRK throws into sharper relief the continuing detention of Mr. Kenneth Bae, who has been in DPRK custody for over a year. We call on the DPRK once again to pardon and grant Mr. Bae special amnesty and immediately release him as a humanitarian gesture so that he too can return home to his family. The U.S. Government will continue to work actively on his case.
We thank the Government of Sweden for the tireless efforts of the Embassy of Sweden in Pyongyang, which acts as our Protecting Power in the DPRK.
Pyongyang, December 7 (KCNA) -- As already reported, a relevant institution of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) detained and investigated U.S. citizen Merrill Edward Newman who entered the DPRK under the guise of a tourist to confirm the whereabouts of the spies and terrorists who had been trained and dispatched by him, an intelligence officer, during the last Korean War. According to the investigation, Newman entered the DPRK with a wrong understanding of it and perpetrated a hostile act against it. Taking into consideration his admittance of the act committed by him on the basis of his wrong understanding, apology made by him for it, his sincere repentance of it and his advanced age and health condition, the above-said institution deported him from the country from a humanitarian viewpoint.