NEW: "It's been a great homecoming," Merrill Newman says upon arrival in San Francisco
Video shows Newman smiling as he walks through Beijing's airport
The 85-year-old was detained in North Korea in October, issued a public apology
State news reports Newman was released for "humanitarian" reasons
Merrill Newman – the 85-year-old American detained by North Korean authorities earlier this fall – returned Saturday to the United States, arriving at San Francisco International Airport.
“It’s been a great homecoming,” said Newman, who was wearing a blue sport coat and khakis. He thanked the U.S. and Swedish diplomats who had helped secure his release, then told reporters, “I’m tired … ready to be with my family now. Thank you all for the support we got, very much appreciated.”
With that, accompanied by his wife, Lee, and son, Jeff, he walked off.
Hours earlier, in the airport in Beijing, video showed him smiling as he walked past a cavalcade of reporters. He felt good, he said, and was looking forward to seeing his wife
“I’m very glad to be on my way home,” Newman said. “And I appreciate the tolerance the DPRK government has given to me to be on my way.”
The communist country “deported” the veteran of the Korean War, North Korea’s state news agency KCNA reported early Saturday. The move coincided with a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to South Korea, where he laid a wreath in honor of those who died in the war that pitted North against South.
A senior administration official said that Newman’s release was the result of direct contact between Washington and Pyongyang. The official said the North Koreans had told the Obama administration in a telephone call that they were releasing Newman; no explanation was offered.
In Palo Alto, California, Newman’s neighbors tied yellow ribbons around objects to welcome him back.
“We are absolutely delighted to confirm that Merrill Newman is on his way home after being released by the DPRK,” said Jeff Newman, Merrill’s son.
“This has been a very difficult ordeal for us as a family and particularly for him,” said his son.
The KCNA report stated that investigators had determined that “Newman entered the DPRK with a wrong understanding of it and perpetrated a hostile act against it.”
“Taking into consideration his admittance of the act committed by him on the basis of his wrong understanding (and the) apology made by him for it, his sincere repentance of it and his advanced age and health condition, the above-said institution deported him from the country from a humanitarian viewpoint,” the official North Korean report said.
Focus now on Kenneth Bae
Jeff Newman also called for the release of Kenneth Bae, another American being held in North Korea.
The State Department repeated its call for the DPRK to pardon Bae and release him, too. The senior administration official said the United States is now paying full-time attention to securing Bae’s release.
Bae’s family said it was pleased to learn of Newman’s release.
“We have been praying for him and are very happy that his family will have him at the head of their table for the holidays. We believe that our Kenneth should also come home soon. We are thankful for all who are advocating on Kenneth’s behalf and for any ongoing dialogue with the DPRK government. We have faith in our government to bring Kenneth home, and we dearly wish that we will also have joyful holidays with Kenneth,” the family said in a statement.
Biden told reporters in South Korea that he had “played no direct role” in the release. He added that his office had offered to let Newman fly home with him on Air Force Two, but State Department officials said he’d take a direct commercial flight to San Francisco.
“It’s a positive thing they’ve done,” said the vice president, who spoke Saturday morning by phone with Newman. “But they still have Mr. Bae, who has no reason being held in the North (and) should be released immediately.”
“While the release of Merrill Newman is welcome news indeed, he never should have been detained in the first place,” said former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has undertaken private diplomatic efforts with North Korea. “The North Koreans should also release Kenneth Bae as a humanitarian gesture.”
U.S. ‘deeply concerned’ about citizens held in North Korea
Newman had traveled in October as a tourist to North Korea on a 10-day organized private tour of North Korea. Phone calls and postcards he sent indicated that the trip was going well and gave no indication of a problem, Jeff Newman said.
The day before Newman was to leave, “one or two Korean authorities” met with him and his tour guide, the son added. They talked about Newman’s service record, which left “my dad … a bit bothered,” he said.
Then, just minutes before his Beijing-bound plane was set to depart Pyongyang in late October, Newman was taken off the aircraft by North Korean authorities.
For weeks, the Pyongyang government offered no explanation as to why they were holding Newman.
An explanation came a few days ago, when state media published and broadcast what they described as the Korean War veteran’s “apology.” The word was written atop the first of four handwritten pages detailing his alleged indiscretions.
In the note – which was dated November 9 – Newman talked about his having advised the Kuwol Unit, part of the “intelligence bureau” fighting against Pyongyang during the Korean War. He detailed how he commanded troops to collect “information” and wage deadly attacks.
“After I killed so many civilians and (North Korean) soldiers and destroyed strategic objects in the DPRK during the Korean War, I committed indelible offensive acts against the DPRK government and Korean people,” Newman said, according to that KCNA report.
The reported message also touched on his return 60 years later to North Korea, saying that he “shamelessly … had a plan to meet any surviving soldiers and pray for the souls of the dead soldiers.”
His statement ended: “If I go back to (the) USA, I will tell the true features of the DPRK and the life the Korean people are leading.”
Photos show scale of North Korea’s repressive prison camps
This public apology was “highly scripted political theater,” said University of California, Berkeley, professor Steve Weber. Some feared Newman could face harsh treatment.
Bae was arrested in November 2012 and sentenced last May to 15 years of hard labor after North Korea’s government found him guilty of “hostile acts” and attempts to topple the government.
Pyongyang is regarded by many as one of the world’s most repressive states, with its insularity, system of cruel detention camps for political prisoners and sharp restrictions on speech and other freedoms.
Its isolation is exacerbated by widespread concern over its nuclear program. The East Asian nation’s reported quest to create a nuclear weapon, as well as its resistance to international monitoring of its activities, have resulted in economic sanctions, compounding its difficulties in getting enough energy and food for its people.
Merrill’s release may serve to relax tensions with the United States.
But above all, it will please his wife, who last month told CNN, “We need to have Merrill back at the head of the table for the holidays.”
CNN’s Tom Watkins, Jill Dougherty, Elise Labott and Joseph Netto contributed to this report.