By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - An elderly U.S. Korean War veteran released from detention in North Korea said on Monday a videotaped "confession" he made was given under duress and that he believed he may have been held in a misunderstanding over his interest in the war.
Merrill Newman, 85, said in a statement that he was kept under guard in a North Korean hotel during a detention that lasted over a month, and that his interrogator told him he would be sentenced to jail for 15 years if he did not cooperate.
"Anyone who knows me knows that I could not have done the things they had me 'confess' to," Newman said in the statement issued two days after he arrived at San Francisco airport on Saturday following his release.
Newman, who was a U.S. special forces soldier during the 1950-53 Korean War and worked with guerrillas fighting behind the lines against the communists in the north, was pulled off a flight on October 26 as he was about to leave the reclusive East Asian nation at the end of a tourist visit.
The California native was held for crimes North Korea said he committed during the war, when he was a lieutenant with a U.S. Army unit nicknamed the "White Tigers," serving as an adviser to a group of partisans who fought deep behind enemy lines.
Newman said that during his tourist trip he had expressed interest in visiting some of those "who fought in the war" in the Mount Kuwol area. He said he had helped train partisan fighters operating in that area during the war.
"The North Koreans seem to have misinterpreted my curiosity as something more sinister," he said. "It is now clear to me the North Koreans still feel much more anger about the war than I realized. With the benefit of hindsight, I should have been more sensitive to that."
No peace treaty was signed between the U.S.-led forces fighting for South Korea against North Korea and China, which was fighting alongside its Cold War ally.
North Korea had called Newman a war criminal, saying he masterminded espionage and subversive activities against the state "and in this course he was involved in killings of service personnel of the Korean People's Army and innocent civilians," the official KCNA news agency has said.
KCNA had said Newman, who has a heart condition, was being deported on humanitarian grounds and because he had admitted to his wrongdoing and apologized.
In an ungrammatical statement given over a week ago on North Korean state media, Newman said he knew the former partisans he had worked with during the war had escaped to South Korea, but that he wanted to find their remaining families and relatives.
Newman also said in the videotaped message that he had a "plan to meet any surviving soldiers."
In his statement to U.S. media on Monday, Newman said that the confession was not voluntary, saying he made a point of emphasizing the bad grammar in the text North Korean authorities had given him to read to show that it was coerced.
Newman, a former manufacturing and finance executive who lives in a retirement community in the upscale city of Palo Alto, also said North Korean authorities looked after his health and fed him well.
Some of Newman's fellow soldiers in the Korean War had said they would not have visited North Korea. But Pyongyang has allowed other American veterans of the war to visit, a fact Newman noted in his latest statement.
Newman's wife, Lee, had previously told CNN that Newman made the visit "to put some closure" on that aspect of his life.
Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American who worked as a Christian missionary, remains imprisoned in North Korea after he was convicted in May of crimes against the state and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. U.S. leaders have called on North Korea to release Bae, as they did in Newman's case.
Newman also expressed hope that Bae "will be allowed to rejoin his family."
(Additional reporting by Dana Feldman,; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Philip Barbara)