A Palo Alto man was removed from a plane and is being detained in North Korea, his traveling companion to the country has confirmed.
Merrill Newman, 85, a resident of the Channing House retirement community, was leaving North Korea on Oct. 26 after a tourist trip when he was detained. The story was first reported by the San Jose Mercury News.
A November Channing House newsletter noted that resident Bob Hamrdla accompanied Newman to North Korea. Newman took Korean-language lessons to prepare for their 10-day independent trip. They were to be accompanied at all times by two Korean guides, the newsletter noted.
"There has to be a terrible misunderstanding. I hope that the North Koreans will see this as a humanitarian matter and allow him to return to his family as soon as possible," Hamrdla said in a statement.
During a press briefing in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 20, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki would not confirm whether Newman is being held, citing privacy laws. But she said a travel warning to the country was updated Nov. 19 and reflects "recent events and reports of North Korean authorities detaining U.S. citizens."
"We have seen the reports. Protection of U.S. citizens is a top priority," she said. Pressed by reporters, she would not comment on why the department remains tight-lipped, which has not been the case in previous incidents, reporters told Psaki.
The United States has no diplomatic ties with North Korea. The U.S. government relies on the Embassy of Sweden as the U.S.'s protecting power in Pyongyang. The Swedish embassy there provides limited services to U.S. citizens in North Korea who are ill, injured, arrested or who die, according to a State Department travel warning.
Under the U.S.-DPRK (North Korean) Interim Consular Agreement, North Korea is supposed to notify the Swedish Embassy within four days of an arrest or detention of a U.S. citizen and will allow consular visits by the Swedish Embassy within two days after a request. The North Korean government routinely delays or denies consular access, however, according to the State Department.
Calls to the Swedish Embassy were not immediately returned.
An unnamed diplomat said Newman was in North Korea for sightseeing, and he had a valid visa, according to Japan's Kyodo News Service.
Newman, a retired finance executive for technology companies, was featured in a Palo Alto Weekly article in May 2005 after being honored with the Avenidas Lifetimes of Achievement award. He was an avid traveler. He volunteered for the Palo Alto Area Chapter of the American Red Cross for nearly 60 years and was on its board for 30 years.
Friends of Newman declined to comment on his situation, citing fears for his safety.
The State Department advisory warns against all travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea and replaces an Oct. 1 travel warning.
"Travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea is not routine, and U.S. citizens crossing into North Korea, even accidentally, have been subject to arbitrary arrest and long-term detention," the warning noted.
Since January 2009, four U.S. citizens have been arrested for entering the country illegally, and two citizens who entered on valid visas were arrested inside North Korea on other charges. The State Department has received other reports of North Korean authorities arbitrarily detaining U.S. citizens and not allowing them to leave the country.
Visitors can be arrested for involvement in unsanctioned religious or political activities, even if performed outside of the country, unauthorized travel or unauthorized interaction with the local population, according to the State Department. Other reasons cited for detention include speaking directly to North Korean citizens, exchanging currency with unauthorized dealers, taking unauthorized photographs or shopping at stores not designated for foreigners.
Up to one-third of all Western tourists in North Korea are now American, according to North Korean (NK) News. North Korean tourist authorities have been relaxing restrictions on U.S. visitors.
According to Kyodo News Service, the North Korean Foreign Ministry denounced a resolution passed on Nov. 20 by the Third Committee of the U.N. General Assembly calling on Pyongyang to improve human rights, including its past abductions of Japanese and other foreign nationals. The resolution was led by Japan and the European Union and has been renewed for nine years.