Say, do you suppose Merrill Newman bought the wrong North Korea travel guide?

The San Jose Mercury News identifies the U.S. citizen arrested in North Korea three weeks ago — yes, that’s right — as Merrill Newman, age 85, of Palo Alto, California. He was arrested on October 26th, when the North Koreans pulled him off his flight out of Pyongyang Sunan before it took off. For whatever reason, we’re only just hearing about it now, although dozens more Americans might have entered North Korea since then, and might have benefited from knowing that the North Koreans had just arrested another one of their countrymen. Even so, the risks ought to have been obvious.

Another Channing House resident, who did not want to give her name, said she spoke with Newman before he left on his trip.

“I said, ‘Why do you want to go to a place that’s dangerous? I wouldn’t want to go,'” she said. “His reaction was very relaxed, with a smile. He went just as a fun trip. He wasn’t there for any particular reason. They were travelling.”

The State Department isn’t confirming Newman’s identity; rather, it’s hiding behind a cramped interpretation of the Privacy Act. We still don’t know why North Korea arrested him, either. Newman’s wife could execute a Privacy Act waiver and dispense with that issue, given that Newman’s identity is being reported in the press.

This bio tells us that Merrill served as an infantry officer during the Korean War and was a high school teacher and a Red Cross volunteer for many years. One of his neighbors says he won the Silver Star for his service. From what I can tell, Newman seems like a nice man, and I feel bad for him. Maybe at 85 years old, you’re entitled to be forgiven for a lapse in judgment. But he’s also a good example of why Americans need to be protected from their gullibility about North Korea, and from tour companies that take their money and tell them that they’ll be perfectly safe there.

Now, the weird part. A person named Merrill E. Newman wrote this Amazon review of the Bradt Travel Guide to North Korea, expressing an interest in traveling to North Korea, saying that the book “seems to reflect deep knowledge of the area,” and calling it “a must have if you are considering a trip to North Korea.” Judging by outcomes alone, and assuming that Newman read this guidebook, it failed to accomplish its core mission of keeping its purchaser out of a North Korean prison. And the author of that guidebook? None other than Robert Wiloughby, which is either the real name or a sock puppet name of Robin Tudge, about whom Marcus Noland wrote this biting post the other day. If you click the “look inside” link for Wiloughby’s book, you’ll get this list of “useful” Korean phrases.

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[Update: Korean speakers will note that at least one of the phrases is a mistranslation. It says “identified,” but the Korean verb “tong-il hada” actually means “reunified” in this context. In Pyongyang, it really means North Korea absorbs South Korea. I can’t imagine that too many tourists would need to use the phrase “fancy abolishing taxation” as frequently as, say, “Where’s the bathroom,” and, “Do you sell Imodium?,” although it does cause me to wonder if Wiloughby’s next edition will tell us the Korean translation for “someone set us up the bomb.”]

Wiloughby’s choice of phrases reminds me of how this Atlantic article described Lee Harvey Oswald’s motives for defecting to the Soviet Union:

I think that the initial appeal [for him] came through communism, or Marxism, with its very violent and bellicose language and its appeals to overturning established wisdoms or powers. And that certainly [played] into—or fueled or comported with—Oswald’s anger and sense of dislocation.

The first lesson of this sad episode is, “Stay the fuck out of North Korea.” For those who aren’t capable of learning the first lesson, the second lesson is, “Find yourself a better guidebook.” After all, more just societies have been known to prosecute the authors of the guidebooks rather than their gullible users.

Do you suppose this whole unfortunate international incident might have begun with a needlessly suggestive tobacco purchase?


  1. Today on the cover of both the Oakland Tribune and The San Jose Mercury News: “Bay Area Man Held in N. Korea”. Meanwhile, on the cover of The San Francisco Chronicle:

    “Futuristic fantasy taking off-maybe” (article about Jetson’s mobile)



  2. This is very disconcerting. I understand the arrest of Kenneth Bae. The DPRK and China have always felt that they had jurisdiction over ethnic Koreans and Chinese, even when they are not citizens of the DPRK or China. But I assume Merrill Newman is not the name of an ethnically Korean person, perhaps it was his service as a soldier that got to them, but how would they have known, and why would he go back if he saw the atrocities committed in that war?

    I have a Caucasian friend who is a published critic of the regime, and yet he has visited the DPRK, both before and after he was published. He admits the only reason they let him in is because they ‘need the money’. As a scholar of the region, I’ve wanted to go too, just to say I’ve been. But alas, I am wary now.


  3. Perhaps Mr. Newman said something like “the last time I was here was in 1952” or “You know, I served in the Korean War!” or used the above phrase book to ask a stewardess if she wanted to go back to his place bouncy-bouncy?


  4. My hunch would be that Newman’s US military background, and maybe some other things, caused someone to suspect him as some kind of spy. (Between the constant surveillance in-country and an easily-Googled name which apparently brought up that Palo Alto Weekly article as the first hit until just now, it wouldn’t be difficult to discover the military connection.)