By Lesley Wroughton and Jack Kim
WASHINGTON/SEOUL (Reuters) - The United States called on North Korea on Saturday to release an elderly U.S. military veteran held in custody since last month and who Pyongyang has accused of killing civilians during the Korean War 60 years ago.
Merrill E. Newman, an 85-year old former special forces officer, is in good health, his family said in a statement after getting an update on his condition from Swedish diplomats who had visited him in the North Korean capital over the weekend.
"He has received the medications that we sent him and medical personnel are checking on his health several times a day. Merrill reports that he is being well treated and that the food is good," the family said. Sweden's North Korean embassy gives consular help to the United States, which has no mission there.
The family, based in California, called on North Korea to release Newman, who has a heart rhythm disorder, as an act of compassion, taking into account his health and his age.
"All of us want this ordeal to end and for the 85 year-old head of our extended family to be with us once more."
Swedish embassy officials were granted access on Saturday to visit Newman, the U.S. State Department said, the first access by Western officials to him since his arrest.
Newman was detained at the end of a trip to communist North Korea, formally known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The DPRK has no diplomatic relations with the United States which fought alongside South Korea in the 1950-53 war.
"Given Mr. Newman's advanced age and health conditions, we urge the DPRK to release Mr. Newman so he may return home and reunite with his family," a State Department official said in a statement.
The White House also urged Newman's release in a brief statement.
On Saturday, North Korea showcased Newman as a criminal, showing a video of him making a full confession and apology as if the battles of the Korean War were still raging.
The state KCNA news agency said Newman had been a mastermind of clandestine operations and confessed to being "guilty of a long list of indelible crimes against DPRK government and Korean people".
'BEG FOR PARDON'
In the patchy video, Newman appears composed and is shown reading aloud from a handwritten statement dated November 9, 2013, in a wood-paneled meeting room. At the end, he bows and places a fingerprint on the document.
"I realize that I cannot be forgiven for my offensives (offenses) but I beg for pardon on my knees by apologizing for my offensives (offenses) sincerely toward the DPRK government and the Korean people and I want not punish me (I wish not to be punished)," Newman was quoted as saying by KCNA.
One of the world's most isolated states, North Korea nourishes memories of the 1950-53 war with South Korea and the United States to keep its impoverished people distracted and the family of founder Kim Il Sung in power. His grandson, Kim Jong Un, is North Korea's current ruler.
It remains technically in a state of war with the South and with the United States because the war ended with a truce, not a peace treaty.
Newman, who lives in a retirement community in Palo Alto, California, was pulled off an Air Koryo flight in North Korea minutes before it was due to depart for Beijing on October 26.
His wife, Lee Newman, told CNN that her husband went to North Korea to "put some closure" on his time during the U.S. military. It was "an important part of his life", she said.
In Pasadena, California, a yellow ribbon was attached to the front door of Jeff Newman, Merrill Newman's son, as a symbol the family was waiting for his return home.
During the war, Merrill Newman trained a group of partisan fighters known as the 'Kuwol Regiment', or 'Kuwolsan' in Korean, according to a former member of that regiment.
It was one of many groups of anti-communist partisans under the command of the U.S. Army 8240th Unit, nicknamed the 'White Tigers', which co-ordinated some of the most daring missions of the Korean War, embedding undercover agents deep in enemy territory and spying on and disrupting North Korean wartime operations, according to documented histories of the regiment.
"He is a criminal as he masterminded espionage and subversive activities against the DPRK and in this course he was involved in killings of service personnel of the Korean People's Army and innocent civilians," KCNA said.
Newman, in his statement carried by KCNA, said he trained men in guerrilla warfare against the North, including how to sabotage communications and transport lines.
Public documents in South Korea and the United States show U.S. officers worked as advisers to groups of anti-communist partisans during the Korean War. The conflict pitted the Communist North, backed by China and the Soviet Union, against the republican South, backed by the United States.
KCNA gave no indication of what might happen to Newman.
After the war, Newman worked as a manufacturing and business executive before retiring in 1984, according to a biography of him in a February 2012 newsletter from Channing House, his retirement home.
North Korea is also holding another American, Christian missionary Kenneth Bae of Korean decent, arrested last year and sentenced in May to 15 years of hard labor on charges of committing hostile acts against the state. The White House also expressed concern for Bae and renewed its call for his release on Saturday.
(Additional reporting by Ju-min Park, James Pearson, Roberta Rampton and Dana Feldman; Editing by Mark Bendeich)