North Korea Detains 85-Year-Old American Veteran

On October 26th, two uniformed North Korean officers marched Merrill Newman off his plane just before it departed the regimented state for Beijing. The 85-year-old Korean War veteran has not been heard from since. Bob Hamrdla, who traveled with him on the 10-day trip, said his detention “has to be a terrible misunderstanding.” Newman’s wife, in a statement issued from her home in Palo Alto, California, used the same word.

Did the North Koreans really make a mistake? Perhaps they thought they were detaining the Merrill Newman who was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry during the Korean War—he lives in Beaverton, Oregon. But it’s unlikely the North Koreans blundered, at least in the broader sense. In all probability, Pyongyang grabbed an American after careful deliberation. From all we can tell, the North Koreans plan their provocations with great care.

It’s not clear what Kim Jong Un, the third generation of his family to rule the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, wants with the Merrill Newman it has in custody. He is the seventh American detained since 2009, and usually the North Koreans get something for their efforts. Former presidents Clinton and Carter won the release of detained Americans, both after high-profile visits to Pyongyang in 2010. The trips bolstered the North’s disgusting regime by showing to its subjects a contrite America coming to ask for Kim family forgiveness.

The Obama administration appropriately refused to reward the North for the seizure of American Kenneth Bae last November. The tour operator and Christian missionary was sentenced to 15 years hard labor this May for “hostile acts,” thought to be the snapping of photos of hungry children. For the diabetic Bae, that term was tantamount to a death sentence. The authorities, however, transferred him to a hospital, apparently preferring to keep him alive. So perhaps the taking of Newman, who has a heart condition, is an attempt to get Washington’s attention. If it is, the North is working on the theory that two hostages are better than one.

Other theories hold that Pyongyang wanted a “bargaining chip” to restart negotiations over its nuclear weapons program. In reality, however, the keeping of Newman could have been motivated by anything. We may never know what that is.

It ultimately does not matter why the North took Newman off the plane at the last minute. It is important, however, that he be freed, and it is even more important that Washington, while doing so, not provide incentives to the regime to snatch other Americans. At some point, we have to stop the detentions—essentially kidnappings—by ending all rewards for this state-sponsored crime. And we should raise the cost of abducting Americans. We can, for instance, restrict travel to the North, add the regime back to the State Department’s list of terrorism-sponsoring states, and tighten sanctions on its banks.

Many had hoped that Kim Jong Un would be a different leader than his father, Kim Jong Il. Analysts said that the son would choose a better path because he was young, because he was educated in the West, because the times were different. None of this, however, has made a difference. North Korea under Kim Jong Un is acting like the North Korea of not only his father but also that of Kim Il Sung, his grandfather and the regime’s founder. If anything, today’s regime could be worse than ever. How could the North Koreans take an innocent, elderly tourist and hold him in secret?

The Kim family has, in addition to detaining tourists and other visitors, abducted citizens from other countries, induced individuals to come to the North and not allowed them to leave, and not returned prisoners of war as promised. According to best estimates, the Kims may have snagged and retained as many as 180,000 individuals (pdf) since 1946, two years before the founding of the North Korean state.

Merrill Newman is only the last victim we know of. There may, for instance, still be American prisoners held in North Korea since the Korean conflict. As Mark Sauter, investigative historian and author, reports, the regime refuses to account for missing US servicemen, including those whose ID cards are displayed as war trophies in a Pyongyang museum (pdf).

At some point, we will have to make an unpleasant decision. We will either have to take steps to bring the end of the rule of the Kim family or accept its continued seizure and detention of Americans. That regime, after more than six decades, has proven itself to be unreformable.

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