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Back home, American talks about time in North Korean custody

By CNN Staff
December 9, 2013 -- Updated 1429 GMT (2229 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Merrill Newman, 85, returned to the United States this weekend
  • He speaks to the Santa Cruz Sentinel newspaper in California
  • Newman says he was fed traditional food and kept in a hotel room

(CNN) -- An 85-year-old American man detained and later let go by North Korean authorities described his time in custody as comfortable.

Merrill Newman, who returned to the United States this weekend, told the Santa Cruz Sentinel in California that he was kept in a hotel room, not a jail cell, and fed traditional Korean food during his detention.

If anything, he was "bored," the newspaper reported he said.

Newman had traveled in October as a tourist to North Korea on a 10-day organized tour. Authorities nabbed him just minutes before his Beijing-bound plane was set to depart Pyongyang.

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Kenneth Bae is one of two American detainees released from North Korea this week. Bae had been held since late 2012, and in April 2013 was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for unspecified "hostile acts" against the North Korean government. North Korea claimed Bae was part of a Christian plot to overthrow the regime. In a short interview with CNN on September 1, Bae said he was working eight hours a day, six days a week at a labor camp. "Right now what I can say to my friends and family is, continue to pray for me," he said. Kenneth Bae is one of two American detainees released from North Korea this week. Bae had been held since late 2012, and in April 2013 was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for unspecified "hostile acts" against the North Korean government. North Korea claimed Bae was part of a Christian plot to overthrow the regime. In a short interview with CNN on September 1, Bae said he was working eight hours a day, six days a week at a labor camp. "Right now what I can say to my friends and family is, continue to pray for me," he said.
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For weeks, the North Korean government offered no explanation as to why they were holding Newman.

An explanation finally came last month, 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 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 report.

When asked about the apology, Newman gave a smirk, according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

"Obviously, that's not my English," he said.

Newman's release 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.

CNN's Greg Botelho and Ben Brumfield contributed to this report.

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