A 21st Century North Korea POW

Why an 85-year-old American veteran has been held by Pyongyang for more than a month

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KCNA via YouTube

Merrill Newman, 85, "confesses" in a North Korea video

The North Korean government released a video over the weekend of an 85-year-old U.S. veteran of the Korean War, purportedly confessing to “hostile acts” committed prior to the July 27, 1953, armistice suspending active combat “until a final peaceful settlement is achieved.”

So here we are, 60 years later. The war — at least as far as North Korea is concerned — continues. And Merrill Newman finds himself the world’s unluckiest prisoner of war.

His incarceration comes following a lengthy career as a financial executive and a comfortable retirement in Palo Alto, Calif. The “confession” that he read was littered with strange English syntax, suggesting it wasn’t something that someone with a master’s degree from Stanford would have written.

Newman seems unflustered in the patchy video, during which the official North Korean news agency said he had confessed to being “guilty of a long list of indelible crimes against [the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] government and Korean people.” Newman bowed after reading the statement, dated Nov. 9. He affixed his fingerprint to each of its four handwritten pages.

In a report from Seoul on Sunday, Reuters detailed Newman’s alleged 1953 role in the U.S. Army’s secret 8240th Unit. He reportedly operated from an island off North Korea’s west coast, directing anticommunist forces in hit-and-run attacks deep behind enemy lines.

He knew he was running a risk during his 10-day visit to North Korea last month, according to American associates. His luck ran out on Oct. 26, just before he was to fly out of the country. The U.S. has urged North Korea to free Newman in light of his age; Sweden’s ambassador to North Korea visited him on Saturday at Pyongyang’s Yanggakdo hotel, and told his family that he is in generally good health.

So what is Pyongyang’s point? Plainly, the war is the fulcrum upon which the Kim dynasty has built its state. It was founded by Kim Il Sung in 1948, and his son Kim Jong Il succeeded him following the father’s death in 1994. When Kim Jong Il died in 2011, his son Kim Jong Un took over, and remains in charge, as far as outsiders can tell. In a nation where the state controls all that its citizens can see and hear — and where the government widely broadcasts its propaganda to its subjects — it’s a safe bet Newman’s apparently forced confession will be spread far and wide across the nation.

Something like that could never happen in the West, where a cacophony of competing voices fills the media landscape. After all, given the recent 60 Minutes fiasco involving Lara Logan’s interview of Dylan Davies — a fake eyewitness to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi a year ago — no one could still believe there is a massive U.S. cover-up into the death of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three fellow Americans.

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KCNA via Reuters

Newman’s handwritten “confession.”