Merrill Newman was a member of the Korean War 8240th Army Unit, which operated anti-communist Korean "partisans" in North Korea, most in the western part of the country. See below the declassified US Army review of these operations. You can also see the CIA's review of broader special operations during the Korean War, conducted by the Combined Command Reconnaissance Activities (CCRAK). 8240th ops are discussed here as well.
This topic is not just sensitive in North Korea; the US government still refuses to declassify 50-year-old and older records relating to this topic from during and the years soon after the Korean War. See an example below of a 1955 report; we requested it earlier this year and the US National Archives says it is still properly classified. We have spent years trying to get some of these files released, mostly because of the information they hold on American POWs kept by the communists after the Korean War (see www.kpows.com).
US-sponsored clandestine action in North Korea did not end with the Korean War Armistice in 1953. In other worlds, the US and its South Korean allies kept sending agents into North Korea years after the war (as the North Koreans were sending their agents the opposite direction). For Pyongyang, Mr. Newman’s efforts might be seen as the early part of a long-running operation…one that is in some ways still going on.
The North Koreans – masters themselves of such clandestine ops – are extremely sensitive about these efforts by the US and South Koreans to insert agents into North Korea over the years. Some of the 8240th missions involved “stay behinds” as well (agents who were to remain behind after the fighting ended), creating a real – if now long-in-the-tooth – connection to North Korean internal security today.
Re Mr. Newman's "apology" cum forced-confession carried on the North Korean news... From "DMZ War's" perspective as a student of Korean War special ops and visitor to North Korea: Obviously, as we know from our US POWs during the war, the Pueblo crew and others, we cannot assume the confession is accurate. It was clearly also written by somebody who is not entirely literate in English and who spouts characteristic North Korean communist bombast.
If Mr. Newman did indeed ask a North Korean contact “to help me look for the surviving soldiers and their families and descendents” (of anti-communist guerrillas), this would certainly raise issues. If there were indeed survivors of Mr. Newman’s unit after the Armistice, they may well have kept up the fight against the communists, actively or passively. They and their families, including children and grandchildren, would be considered “hostile” to the North Korean regime even to this day (under the North Korean class system), based just on the actions of the partisans during the war.
The North Koreans take great pains to keep American and other foreign visitors away from citizens they consider untrustworthy, which includes people whose parents or grandparents fought with the US during the war (plus people from Christian and business-owning families, etc.).
Asking a regime insider to contact such “enemies of the state,” especially if there was a link to a group of former anti-communist guerrillas in South Korea, would raise all sorts of issues. If it happened, I can see why the North Korean who was asked to do this would turn in Mr. Newman, if only out of fear that if he didn’t, the regime would learn about the exchange later and accuse him of being a traitor for not immediately passing on Newman’s comments (which may have been recorded) to internal security.
We can see Mr. Newman thinking he was acting on a humanitarian basis, not understanding how the North Korean security state might take his efforts.
The issue of Mr. Newman's alleged hope to “pray for the souls of the dead soldiers in Kuwol Mt.,” if true, would also be extremely irritating to North Korean officials, who do not have any desire to “forgive and forget” those who fought against them after the war.
Mr. Newman may have believed “bygones should be bygones” on the Korean peninsula. Pyongyang does not.
One final consideration: Pyongyang sometimes decides to grab Americans simply for negotiating purposes. If the word was out to snatch a Yankee to bargain for some concession from the Obama Administration, Mr. Newman was in additional jeopardy to begin with.
(DMZ War: 11/30, pm)