The last POW: The story of an 85-year old 'enemy spy'

Merrill Newman (back, left), pictured in with the "Kuwol Comrades," anti-communist Korean guerrillas who fought behind North Korean lines.

Story highlights

  • Former CNN correspondent looks at the case of Merrill Newman, arrested in North Korea in 2013
  • Newman, who advised South Korean troops in the Korean war, was detained for months in the reclusive state
  • Accused of espionage, the octogenarian had no way of knowing when -- or even if -- he would be released
  • Chinoy retells Merrill's striking story in an essay, "The Last POW," with an excerpt published exclusively on CNN
After days of relentlessly questioning Merrill about his role in the Korean War, the North Korean "investigator" suddenly switched subjects.
"They started in on why I came," Newman recalled. "I said it was because I wanted to find out what was really going on in North Korea. Then they began to focus on my asking our guides to help me locate old soldiers or their relations or descendants if we got to Kuwol Mountain.
"They tried to make it into the main reason for my visit. I tried to get across that the business of me contacting people was just an aside. It was just incidental. It wasn't the main thing."
The investigator erupted. "You're lying! You're guilty of espionage. You've got to be honest with us."
"I apologized for trying to reconnect. I continued to maintain that the purpose was just to get a better understanding of North Korea. But that was the 'crime' in their eyes—illegally using the tour as a cover."
Kim on North Korea's cult of personality
Kim on North Korea's cult of personality

    JUST WATCHED

    Kim on North Korea's cult of personality

MUST WATCH

Kim on North Korea's cult of personality 01:54
Merrill Newman is once again a free man
Merrill Newman is once again a free man

    JUST WATCHED

    Merrill Newman is once again a free man

MUST WATCH

Merrill Newman is once again a free man 02:12
North Korea behind Sony Pictures hack?
North Korea behind Sony Pictures hack?

    JUST WATCHED

    North Korea behind Sony Pictures hack?

MUST WATCH

North Korea behind Sony Pictures hack? 02:30
China a roadblock for N. Korea refugees
China a roadblock for N. Korea refugees

    JUST WATCHED

    China a roadblock for N. Korea refugees

MUST WATCH

China a roadblock for N. Korea refugees 02:57
Wartime contacts
The North Koreans were particularly interested in an email that Newman had sent before his trip to his elderly wartime contacts in Seoul. The "investigator" asked about the "Kuwol comrades." Did they have an office? How big was it? How much time had Merrill spent with them?
"I was not completely forthcoming," Newman said. He sought to downplay the group and his connection to it, describing the Seoul office as small and nondescript, and lying about how much time he'd spent with the former guerrillas.
He was worried that his interrogators would realize that he wasn't telling the whole truth, but they never did.
The "investigator" also accused Merrill of "criticizing" the DPRK, referring specifically to his conversation with fellow tourist Bob Hamdrla in which he noted the resources North Korea's government wasted on monuments in such an impoverished country. Clearly, their guide Hyon-yi, who always seemed to be listening in to their conversations from her seat in the back of their minivan, had reported that comment to security officials.
'Major crimes'
In mid-November, Merrill was told again that he committed "major crimes" and that he was to prepare for a meeting with a "senior official" where he would make a formal "confession."
"They said: 'This is the guy who will decide whether you stay or go home.'"
In the days before the meeting, the investigator and the interpreter made Merrill write out what he would say.
"The statement used words they dictated," Merrill said. "I did not try to tidy the language. I wanted it clearly understood [by those outside North Korea] that these were not my words, though in my handwriting."
The meeting took place on November 9, 2013, in a large room on the ground floor of the Yanggakdo Hotel, where Newman was being held.
Merrill was wearing a short-sleeved shirt, but the interpreter told him that was not formal enough, so he changed to a long-sleeved one.
Merrill was instructed to be very respectful, to stand up when the official entered the room, and then to read the statement.
The official appeared to be in his 50s, wearing a well-tailored uniform, with a serious, formal demeanor. With video cameras rolling and his hands shaking, Merrill began.
Confession?
"During the Korean War, I have been guilty of a long list of indelible crimes ... as I killed so many civilians and KPA [Korean People's Army] soldiers and destroyed strategic objects in the DPRK during the Korean War, I committed indelible offensive acts against the DPRK government and Korean people.
"Although 60 years have gone by, I came to DPRK on the excuse of the tour ... Shamelessly, I had a plan to meet any surviving soldiers ... I also brought the e-book criticizing the Socialist DPRK and criticizing DPRK.
"I realize that I cannot be forgiven for any offensives but I beg for pardon on my knees ... Please forgive me."
At the end of the statement, Newman bowed to the camera. He then signed it, and stamped the paper with his thumbprint.
"You make a confession because you don't have any choice," he said. "They have the key. And there isn't any duplicate."
But having now done so, he thought the North Koreans would move to release him.
"I had a calendar on the wall, and I counted those days, and I got closer and closer, I was figuring there is no way I am still going to be here for Thanksgiving."
But nothing happened. Merrill remained confined in his hotel room.
In moments of depression, Merrill began to wonder if he would ever be released.