SANTA CRUZ -- A relaxed Merrill Newman walked outside his Santa Cruz home on Sunday morning and was immediately greeted by a neighbor with a giant hug.
The neighbor told Newman how she "just knew" he would return unharmed from the daring vacation he took to North Korea that turned into an American's worst nightmare just as he was about to depart on an airplane back to China.
No one could tell just by looking that the 85-year-old Palo Alto man had been held captive by North Korean authorities for more than a month.
Though he politely declined to be interviewed by a Sentinel reporter, Newman answered a few questions before stopping the conversation.
Newman said he had been well fed eating traditional Korean food while being forced against his will to stay in the communist country after completing a 10-day vacation tour on Oct. 26.
He was kept in a hotel room, not a jail cell, and was comfortable, if not even "bored" during detention, Newman said.
He gave a smirk when asked about the video North Korean authorities released a couple of weeks ago where Newman read an apology about alleged criminal acts he had committed during his U.S. military service in the Korean War and the vacation tour.
"Obviously, that's not my English," he said Sunday.
He said his wife is in charge of his passport when asked whether he still has the heart for international travel.
North Korean officials cited Newman's age and heart condition when they released him Friday and put him on a plane to Beijing.
Vice President Joe Biden, who was in South Korea to visit a war memorial in Seoul, spoke with Newman by phone Friday and offered him a ride home on Air Force Two. But Newman declined, telling the vice president he preferred to take a nonstop flight from Beijing to San Francisco.
A retired Army officer, who helped publicize Newman's plight, said he believes the North Korean government simply concluded there was no point in drawing further condemnation for holding Newman longer.
"You've got an elderly man who's well-respected, a grandpa. And here they are putting him in the slammer for something that happened 60 years ago," said Thaddeus Taylor III, a former Army intelligence officer who was a liaison to South Korean intelligence and security agencies in the 1970s. "That didn't play well."
Taylor first alerted the media to Newman's detention after hearing about it from friends of Newman's family. State Department officials had advised the family and some of Newman's old war buddies to keep quiet while diplomats sought to use Swedish back channels to free him, but Taylor said he felt public pressure would make a difference.
"The more people that knew about this, the louder the noise, the better chance Merrill had of getting busted out," Taylor said.
Newman had visited South Korea before and met with some of his former anti-communist fighters who had fled south after the war. Before this trip, he apparently emailed them in advance and offered to deliver messages to any contacts they still had in North Korea. The North Korean authorities claimed the email as evidence of espionage.
On Sunday, Newman said his son Jefferey Newman would be in charge of arranging further media interviews.
"After Merrill comes home and has a chance to get a well-deserved rest, we will have more to say about his unusual and difficult journey," Newman's son Jeffrey told reporters after North Korea announced his father's release Friday night.
North Korean authorities have shown no inclination to free another American, Kenneth Bae, whom they imprisoned more than a year ago for doing Christian missionary work in the country.
The Bay Area News Group contributed to this report.
Follow Sentinel reporter Shanna McCord at Twitter.com/scnewsmom
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