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American veteran, 85, detained by North Korea

| Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013, 8:36 p.m.

PALO ALTO, Calif. — Despite strong warnings from the State Department, hundreds of Americans like the Korean War veteran apparently being detained in North Korea travel to the communist nation each year.

In the case of Merrill Newman, a retired finance executive from California, that desire was fueled by the three years he spent as an infantryman six decades ago, according to his son. North Korean officials detained him at the end of a trip on Oct. 26 as he sat in an airplane set to leave the country, the son said. North Koreans had reportedly interviewed Newman the day before.

“We don't know what this misunderstanding is all about,” Jeffrey Newman said as he awaited word on efforts by the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang to secure his father's release. “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.”

Speaking on Thursday to reporters in Beijing, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davies wouldn't confirm Newman's detention but said, generally, that U.S. officials were working with Swedish diplomats “to try to move this issue along and of course calling on North Korea ... to resolve the issue and to allow our citizens to go free.” Sweden acts as America's protecting power in North Korea because Washington and Pyongyang don't have official diplomatic relations.

The State Department this week revised its travel warning for North Korea to advise all citizens against going there, saying it had received reports of authorities “arbitrarily detaining U.S. citizens and not allowing them to depart the country.”

Although travel to North Korea is not common, Americans have been making the trip in increasing numbers since the country opened itself up to American tourism two years ago, said Jenny Town, assistant director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

“Tourism is on the rise, especially of Americans, because it's such an isolated state. People are kind of fascinated by ... going somewhere where no one else has gone,” she said.

Travel to the country is arranged through tour companies that have local guides in North Korea that receive tourists and help them get around, she said. With no North Korean consulate in the United States, so visas are obtained abroad, often in Beijing.

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