SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Vice President Joe Biden praised North Korea's release of an elderly U.S. tourist Saturday, but admonished the North for detaining him in the first place and called for another detained American to be swiftly released.
Biden called Merrill Newman shortly after the 85-year-old landed in Beijing from North Korea, where he had been detained for more than a month. North Korean authorities had pulled Newman off a plane while he was touring the country six decades after he advised South Korean guerrillas still loathed by Pyongyang.
"The DPRK today released someone they never should have had in the first place," Biden said, referring to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the country's official name. "At least there's one bright piece of sunshine that he will be released and return to his family."
Biden said he had "played no direct role" in securing Newman's release and offered no thoughts on why the North decided to release him. The North's official Korean Central News Agency said Pyongyang made the decision because the Newman had apologized for his alleged crimes during the Korean War and because of his age and medical condition.
But the release came just hours before Biden was scheduled to visit the Demilitarized Zone separating South Korea from the North, a visit that was likely to cast attention on Newman's detention as well as global concerns about North Korea's nuclear program.
"The release is vintage North Korea," said Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank in Hawaii. "They always try to capture the attention away from something that might make the Republic of Korea look good and get the spotlight on them instead. Normally they do this by doing something negative. At least in this instance, it was a positive gesture."
Speaking at the War Memorial of Korea on the last day of a long-planned trip to Seoul, Biden said he'd offered Newman a ride home on Air Force Two but that the American declined because there was a commercial flight leaving Beijing for San Francisco within a few hours.
Biden told the released American that the U.S. must also work to secure the release of Kenneth Bae, another U.S. citizen in Pyongyang's custody, Biden's office said. The vice president also told Newman that all of America was waiting to welcome him.
"It's a positive thing they've done, but they still have Mr. Bae, who has no reason being held in the North, should be released immediately," Biden told reporters in Seoul.
Reach Josh Lederman at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP