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North Korea’s Accidental Tourist

WELLESLEY, MASSACHUSETS – Merrill Newman, the 85-year-old former US Army officer who recently returned home after more than a month of detention in North Korea, had gone to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to gain long-overdue closure on his experience during the Korean War. What Newman did not realize was that he would, yet again, be stepping into a war zone.

For DPRK authorities, closure without a peace treaty is unthinkable – as is accommodating individuals’ psychological and emotional need to reconcile their past and present toward the end of their lives. Simply put, if Newman was an enemy combatant 60 years ago, he is an enemy combatant today.

And Newman was very much an enemy of the regime. He trained Koreans to join the Kuwol unit, an anti-communist guerilla force tasked with disrupting North Korean military operations. Kuwol survivors claim to have killed 1,500 North Korean soldiers and captured 600 during the war. The unit – which the DPRK asserts also killed civilians – was “hated and feared” by North Korean fighters and was considered a major threat to the regime.

Newman has kept in touch with some of his trainees, who now reside in South Korea. Indeed, he planned to head to South Korea for a reunion with former Kuwol members after his visit to the North – a plan that raised serious suspicions among DPRK authorities.