The 85-year-old American veteran being held in North Korea trained and led guerilla fighters during the Korean War, according to a new report.
The Associated Press spoke with former South Korean comrades of Merrill Newman, who remains in North Korean custody after he was detained following a 10-day vacation to the hermetic authoritarian nation. A video emerged Nov. 30 showing Newman reading a statement of apology in broken English for his activities during the Korean War.
His family has so far declined to comment about his previous military experience. A group of South Koreans however spoke with the AP of the pride they feel toward their former unit, known as the Kuwal fighters, who are still despised in Pyongyang and praised in Seoul for their guerilla tactics.
Merrill, then a Marine Corps lieutenant, helped supply and train the unit during the 1950-1953 war. He was supposed to meet with other former members of the Kuwal fighters in South Korea before he was detained.
"The North Koreans still gnash their teeth at the Kuwol unit," said Park Boo Seo, a Kuwal veteran, to the AP.
Park, 80, and other veterans waited for several hours at the Incheon International Airport west of Seoul on Oct. 27 with bouquets of flowers in anticipation of Merrill's arrival. News of his detainment was released after he was scheduled to arrive in South Korea.
North Korean state news agency KCNA released the content of the letter Merrill said for the video recording.
"During the Korean War, I have been guilty of a long list of indelible crimes against DPRK government and Korean people as adviser of the Kuwol Unit of the U.N. Korea 6th Partisan Regiment part of the Intelligence Bureau of the Far East Command," he began. "As I gave 300 people with barbarity gone to the South who had ill feelings toward the DPRK from Chodo military education and guerilla training they later did attack against the DPRK although the armistice was signed."
He goes on to say, according to the letter he read, that "shamelessly I had a plan to meet any surviving soldiers and pray for the souls of the dead," and that he brought an e-book that criticized the North Korean government.
"Although I committed the indelible offensive acts against the Korean people in the period of the Korean War, I have been guilty of big crimes against the DPRK government and Korean People again," he read.
The video shows Newman signing the letter and adding a thumb print.
His South Korean former comrades say they don't understand the charges against him. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday the U.S. has no further information on the reason for Newman's detention.
"Given his age and health, we continue to call for North Korea to release him as quickly as possible," said Psaki, who declined to comment further.
The AP has more details on Newman's contribution to the guerilla fighters and involvement in the war.