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Spouse of American veteran detained in North Korea appeals for his return

PALO ALTO, California -- The wife of an 85-year-old veteran detained in North Korea implored authorities to let her husband return to his anxious family and end what she called a “dreadful misunderstanding.”

“We have had no word on the state of his health, whether or not the medications sent to him through the Swedish Embassy in North Korea have been delivered or why he was detained,” Lee Newman said in a prepared statement released in California on Friday.

Meanwhile, North Korean officials told the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang that they were holding an American but did not confirm it was Merrill Newman, who was pulled from a plane Oct. 26 while preparing to leave the communist nation after a 10-day tour.

The Swedish Embassy is negotiating on a daily basis on behalf of Newman because the U.S. has no diplomatic ties to North Korea, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington.

Until his planned departure, Newman's trip had seemed positive, with postcards describing good times and knowledgeable guides, Lee Newman said in her statement.

“The family feels there has been some dreadful misunderstanding leading to his detention and asks that the (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) work to settle this issue quickly and to return this 85-year-old grandfather to his anxious, concerned family,” she said.

David Thompson at Juche Travel Services' London office said in an email that Newman and his companion had booked a private tour through the agency, and arrangements were handled in North Korea through the Korea International Travel Co., the state-run tourism office.

“Mr. Newman had in place all necessary and valid travel documents to take his tour,” Thompson said.

Newman has been described as an inveterate traveler and long-retired finance executive. His son, Jeffrey Newman, said his father wanted to return to the country where he spent three years during the Korean War.

It's unknown why he is being detained, but his father's traveling companion, Bob Hamrdla, said Newman earlier had a “difficult” discussion with North Korean officials about his experiences during the war, according to Jeffrey Newman.

Hamrdla, who lives in the same 11-story Palo Alto retirement apartment building as the Newmans, has led more than 40 travel programs to Central Europe for Stanford University.

By agreement with the Newmans, Hamrdla declined an interview.

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