- (Photo: Reuters/Noah Berger)
North Korea has released 85-year-old U.S. veteran Merrill Newman after holding him for more than a week for allegedly making plots against Pyongyang, but American Christian missionary Kenneth Bae is still being held at a labor camp.
"I'm delighted to be home," Newman told reporters at the San Francisco airport after arriving there on Saturday. "It's been a great homecoming. I'm tired, but ready to be with my family," The Associated Press quoted him as saying amid applause from supporters gathered there.
Vice President Joe Biden had offered to bring the 85-year-old veteran in his Air Force Two, but Newman preferred to board a direct flight from Beijing, where he flew from North Korea after being freed.
Newman expressed gratitude towards the Swedish and American embassies in Pyongyang for helping secure his release.
"I appreciate the tolerance the DPRK government has given to me to be on my way. I feel good. I feel good. I want to go home to see my wife," he added, according to USA Today.
Marie Harf, deputy spokeswoman of the U.S. State Department, released a statement saying, "We welcome the decision to release him."
Newman's release came about a week after North Korea's state media claimed he apologized for alleged crimes during the Korean War and for "hostile acts" against the state during a recent trip.
"During the Korean War, I have been guilty of a long list of indelible crimes against the DPRK government and Korean people," North Korea's KCNA news agency quoted Newman as allegedly writing.
KCNA said Newman tried to meet with surviving soldiers he had trained to fight the North during the Korean War.
However, Newman's statement was widely seen as coerced. His four-page statement had grammatical errors. "I want not punish me," reads one line.
Late last month, the White House urged Pyongyang to release Newman and Bae.
"Kenneth Bae has been in DPRK custody for over a year, and we continue to urge the DPRK authorities to grant him amnesty and immediate release," said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council.
Bae, 46, is the longest-serving American detainee in North Korea since the end of the war in 1953.
Bae, who was based in China leading tours into North Korea, was arrested in the city of Rajin on Nov. 3, 2012, supposedly for plots he had made against the government. He was later sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
Bae's family has pleaded for his release, and the State department sent Ambassador Robert King, the president's special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, to travel to Pyongyang with hopes of negotiating his freedom, but the government has so far refused to comply.
Bae's mother visited him in prison a month ago. "As a mother, I worry endlessly about his health and I wanna see him and comfort him and hold him in person," she said. "I miss him so much..."
Bae's sister, Terri Chung, thinks his personal convictions and his beliefs as a Christian may have been deemed as hostile acts. "Maybe he was a little bit overzealous, I'm not sure… All I know is my brother is a good man. He has a huge heart to help people in the nation of North Korea."
North Korea has never had democracy. Since its formation in 1948, the nation has been ruled by a one party, the Korea Worker's Party, led by one family, the Kims. There are at least 100,000 Christians in that nation's harsh prison camps, where prisoners face torture, forced labor and possible execution, according to Christian groups.