Merrill Newman released by North Korea, heading home

Saying he “feels good” and is eager to get home and see his wife, Merrill Newman was deported by North Korea last night. Good news to be sure, even if the timing is rather curious.

(Reuters) – North Korea freed an 85-year-old retired American soldier on Saturday after detaining him for more than a month for crimes it said he committed during the Korean War six decades ago.

The veteran, Merrill E. Newman, flew to China from North Korea in the morning. Hours later he left on a United Airlines flight to San Francisco to be reunited with his family, sources at Beijing airport said.

North Korea’s official KCNA news agency earlier said he was being deported on humanitarian grounds and because he had admitted to his wrongdoing and apologized.

Nobody is buying the “apology” line outside of the information starved people of North Korea, of course, but I’ve seen a few comments already which have questioned some of Mr. Newman’s remarks when he greeted reporters upon his release.

“I’m very glad to be on my way home,” Newman told Japanese reporters as he arrived at Beijing airport. “And I appreciate the tolerance the DPRK government has given to me to be on my way. I feel good, I feel good. I want to go home to see my wife.”

I seriously doubt that Newman is feeling any gratitude or sympathy toward the government of North Korea. But by the same token they were talking to him only hours after his release and when he was still on foreign soil, far from his home and his family. For all we know, it didn’t even seem real to him yet at that point, and he may not have wanted to endanger his escape by saying anything too inflammatory. We’ll know more after he’s had time to get home to his wife and digest all that has taken place.

Another somewhat bright spot in all of this was that Joe Biden, who recently peered over the border from South Korea, didn’t seem to be taking credit for the release as part of his tour of the area. At least not too much credit.

Vice President Joe Biden said North Korea’s release of an elderly U.S. tourist detained for more than a month is positive news.

Merrill Newman, 85, of Palo Alto, Calif., is now in China en route to the United States, Biden’s office said. However, the vice president said he played “no direct role” in securing Newman’s release.

“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,” Biden said Saturday. “I’d be on that flight, too.”

I’m not sure if saying he played, “no direct role” in the release was intended to say he wasn’t involved or if it was leaving open the possibility that he’s taking credit for some indirect role in Mr. Newman’s trip back home. It also struck me as odd that Newman chose to turn his nose up at a ride on Air Force 2. Yes, there was a commercial flight straight to San Francisco, but can’t the Vice President’s plane land at pretty much any airport they want, provided there’s a long enough runway? If nothing else, the conditions have to be far more comfortable and the in flight food service is probably better, not to mention bigger seats. I have to wonder if there might not be some lingering feelings of resentment that the US didn’t take a more forceful approach to one of their citizens – a decorated veteran at that – being snatched up and taken prisoner by North Korea’s madman in chief.

Was this a snub to the administration, or just a humble man who didn’t want a big fuss made over him, insisting on flying commercial like anyone else? We may never find out the answer to that one unless Newman decides to really empty the bag after he gets back home. But in any event, as I said above, this is great news. Welcome home, sir.

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