Colusa man detained in North Korea oversaw guerrillas during conflict
SEOUL, South Korea — Six decades before he went to North Korea as a curious tourist, Merrill Newman — a former Colusa resident — supervised a group of South Korean guerrillas during the Korean War who were perhaps the most hated and feared fighters in the North, former members of the group say.
Some of those guerrillas, interviewed this week by The Associated Press, remember Newman as a handsome, thin American lieutenant who got them rice, clothes and weapons during the later stages of the 1950-53 war, but largely left the fighting to them.
North Korea apparently remembered him, too.
The 85-year-old war veteran has been detained in Pyongyang since being forced off a plane set to leave the country Oct. 26 after a 10-day trip. He appeared this weekend on North Korean state TV apologizing for alleged wartime crimes in what was widely seen as a coerced statement.
"Why did he go to North Korea?" asked Park Boo Seo, a former member of the Kuwol partisan unit, which is still loathed in Pyongyang and glorified in Seoul for the damage it inflicted on the North during the war. "The North Koreans still gnash their teeth at the Kuwol unit."
Park and several other former guerrillas said they recognized Newman from his past visits to Seoul in 2003 and 2010 — when they ate raw fish and drank soju, Korean liquor — and from the TV footage, which was also broadcast in South Korea.
Colusa resident Charles Tuttle Jr., 86, told the Colusa County Sun-Herald that Newman "was a very bright student. He did very well in school and had lots of activities. He went on to Cal and graduated from there and then got his master's at Stanford. He just was a real smart guy. He was very active in everything.
"He grew up in Colusa. We were all kids together, and played together. He lived on the corner of Sixth and Oak streets, I guess. It's where the new courthouse is. It's not there anymore," Tuttle said. "In the '30s when we were all kids, he was just a neat guy. Just a typical small-town, all-American boy."
Newman was scheduled to visit South Korea to meet former Kuwol fighters following his North Korea trip. Park said about 30 elderly former guerrillas, some carrying bouquets of flowers, waited in vain for several hours for him at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, on Oct. 27 before news of his detention was released.
Newman has yet to tell his side of the story, aside from the televised statement, and his family hasn't responded to requests for comment on his wartime activities. Jeffrey Newman has previously said that his father, an avid traveler and retired finance executive from California, had always wanted to return to the country where he fought during the Korean War.
Newman's detention is just the most recent point of tension on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea has detained another American for more than a year, and there's still wariness in Seoul and Washington after North Korea's springtime threats of nuclear war and vows to restart its nuclear fuel production.
According to his televised statement, Newman's alleged crimes include training guerrillas whose attacks continued even after the war ended, and ordering operations that led to the death of dozens of North Korean soldiers and civilians. He also said in the statement he attempted to meet surviving Kuwol members.
Former guerrillas in Seoul said Newman served as an adviser for Kuwol, one of dozens of such partisan groups established by the U.S.-military during the Korean War. They have a book about the unit that Newman signed, praising Kuwol and writing that he was "proud to have served with you." The book includes a photo of Newman that appears to be taken within the last 10-15 years.