North Korean authorities pulled a visiting tourist U.S. citizen off a plane last month and have been detaining him in the country ever since, but may have mistaken the man for another American of the same name.
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Merrill E. Newman, an 85-year-old grandfather from Palo Alto, Calif., traveled to North Korea last month with a tour group out of Beijing.
Authorities have kept Newman's situation quiet for weeks, but former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former ambassador to the U.N., confirmed to ABC News today he has been in touch with his North Korean contacts working on the situation. The State Department has declined to release details about Newman's status.
Newman was a Korean War veteran, one of many that has gone back to visit North Korea in the decades after their service.
But another North Korean veteran named Merrill H. Newman, age 84, was, until recently, the better-known Merrill Newman. He received a Silver Star for his time in the Korean War.
"The thought entered my head," said Merrill H. Newman, reached at his home in Beaverton, Ore. "The name is the same and there's always that possibility, but I have no way of knowing."
"The thing that has been kicked around by media people, not me, is that I received a Silver Star for 60 years ago in Korea and I have the same name, so the question has come up, could it be that in the process of maybe Googling, like anybody can, and finding that perhaps they thought there was a connection there? I don't know. I have no way of knowing," he said.
Merrill E. Newman, the one being detained in North Korea, served in the infantry during the war, but was not as decorated as Merrill H. Newman.
In 1952, Merrill H. Newman was serving in the Marine Corps and led a raid against the Chinese for which he was awarded the Silver Star. He demurred from recounting the details of the raid.
"I'm one of thousands of guys, I'm not different than anybody else," he said. "I never really considered it to be a big deal."
He was, however, flooded with phone calls from concerned friends and relatives when news first broke earlier this week that a man named Merrill Newman was being held by North Korea.
"They said it's nice to know you're still here," he said.
The U.S. Department of State has remained mum on the status of Merrill E. Newman, who traveled with a friend from his Palo Alto retirement community in October to visit North Korea via a tour company based in Beijing.
On Oct. 26, as he and his travel partner, former Stanford University professor George Robert Hamrdla, were seated on a plane set to depart North Korea, authorities removed Newman from the plane and detained him.
"There has to be a terrible misunderstanding," Hamrdla said in a statement Wednesday. "I hope that the North Koreans will see this as a humanitarian matter and allow him to return to his family as soon as possible."
"We don't know what this misunderstanding is all about," Newman's son, Jeffrey Newman, told the Associated Press. "All we want as a family is to have my father, my kids' grandfather, returned to California so he can be with his family for Thanksgiving."
Earlier this week, the State Department updated their travel warning to the country advising that U.S. citizens have been "subject to arbitrary arrest and long-term detention" when traveling there.
Meanwhile, Merrill H. Newman said he has no interest in traveling back to Korea.
"I've no interest in that at all," he said. "A lot of guys do that but I don't. My interest in spending time is to go out into eastern Orgegon and go fishing or hiking. That's what I prefer rather than going back to Korea."
"They have a group that goes back there apparently every year, for Korean veterans, and they can do this for very little cost," he added.