Washington’s top envoy to North Korea urged Pyongyang to free two detained American citizens. The call comes amid reports this week that in addition to holding a U.S.-Korean Christian missionary Kenneth Bae, North Korea has also recently detained a 85-year-old U.S. citizen.
According to media reports, Merrill Newman, a former Korean War veteran, was taken from a plane late last month as he was about to depart from North Korea.
This photo provided by the Palo Alto Weekly shows Merrill Newman, a retired finance executive and Red Cross volunteer, 2005.
The U.S. government has not directly confirmed the detention, citing privacy laws, and North Korea has yet to comment on the situation.
Speaking with reporters in Beijing Thursday, visiting U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Glyn Davies urged Pyongyang to think long and hard about the two cases, noting the fate of Americans abroad was a core concern.
“We of course are calling on North Korea, as in the case of Mr. Kenneth Bae, who has now been there for over a year, to resolve the issue, and to allow our citizens to go free," Davies said.
The envoy is touring Asia this week amid a renewed push to restart long-stalled talks on ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs.
He didn’t draw a clear line between the cases and the international community’s broader efforts, but the cases are one of several examples of issues frustrating the resumption of nuclear talks with the North.
Davies says his talks in Beijing with his Chinese counterpart Wu Dawei were fulfilling. But there was no clear sign that a return to the six-party talks that include the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States would resume any time soon.
“This really is up to North Korea," noted Davies. "It's North Korea who seems not seriously interested in making meaningful progress on the nuclear issue. And until we see a manifestation of North Korean seriousness, it's very difficult for me to know what the prospects are for getting back to Six Party."
In recent months, North Korea has been talking about restarting some of its nuclear programs at the same it has suggested new proposals for its return to six-nation talks on ending its atomic programs. The North has also been stressing a dual policy of nuclear and economic development.
North Korea pulled out of the six party-talks in 2009 and says it is willing to return to the table as long as there are no pre-conditions.
In the past, Pyongyang has been accused of using foreign detainees as bargaining chips in negotiations with Western countries over its controversial nuclear weapons program.
North Korea has detained at least six Americans since 2009. While some were given harsh prison sentences, all were eventually released. In most cases, their release followed visits by high-ranking former or current U.S. officials.
Merrill Newman's son has told CNN that it was his father's "life-long dream" to see the North and its culture, after serving in the South as a U.S. infantry officer in the 1950s. He said his father arranged the trip through a North Korea-approved Chinese tour company and had "all the proper visas."
Kenneth Bae being interviewed by Japanese pro-North Korea newspaper Choson Sinbo at North Korean labor camp, June 26, 2013.
Newman's detention comes almost a year after the arrest of Kenneth Bae, who was detained last November. He was later convicted of state subversion and sentenced to 15 years hard labor.
Bae was detained after entering North Korea as a tour operator. His family says he has diabetes and is in ill health.