For weeks, speculation swirled around the mystery of why Merrill Newman returned to North Korea where he fought 60 years ago and why officials from the reclusive communist regime pulled him off the plane as he was headed home and kept him in custody as a war criminal and spy for more than a month.
On Monday, two days after the 85-year-old grandfather with a heart condition finally returned home to his wife and son, he released a two-page explanation and a simple admission:
"I just didn't understand that, for the North Korean regime, the Korean War isn't over and that even innocent remarks about the war can cause big problems if you are a foreigner."
He said he now realizes his overtures to connect with some of the North Korean rebels he trained during the war was seen as "something more sinister."
In his first extensive comments since he was released Friday, Newman said in the statement that while the North Koreans looked after his health and fed him well, he was under constant guard in his hotel room in Pyongyang and "my interrogator made it clear that if I did not cooperate, I could be sentenced to jail for espionage for 15 years."
He said he agreed to make the widely circulated videotaped "confession" written by his captors because he believed it was his only hope of getting home, and when he was released, he was surprised by the overwhelming media awaiting him at the Beijing airport on Friday and again at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday. He had been so isolated in his hotel room, he said, "I wondered whether anyone was even aware of my situation."
A North Korea expert says, however, that many questions remain, including whether any deals were made with North Korea to secure Newman's release. He also said Newman, now on American soil, has nothing to worry about by going public about his ordeal.
"They're not going to go after him," said Thomas Henriksen, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. "There are too many people they hate more."
The North Koreans also accomplished their goal by holding him in custody, he said, which was less about embarrassing the United States than about impressing their own people.
"Here they've got this guy confessing to crimes that they have been saying all along have been committed by America and its puppets," Henriksen said. "This strengthens their own legitimacy and enhances the party's prestige internally."
After Newman was detained on Oct. 26, his family released little information, saying only that Newman had traveled as a tourist to North Korea with a friend from his Palo Alto retirement community because he wanted to return to the place that had had a "profound, powerful impact" on him as a young man.
On Monday, Newman explained that he didn't think he had anything to worry about on his trip. Other war veterans had traveled there without incident, and he didn't hide his military service from the London-based tour company that arranged the trip. His travel papers were in order, including permission to tour the Mount Kuwol area where he had trained North Korean "partisans" rebelling against their country's communist regime. These guerrillas, some known as "White Tigers," were widely reviled by the North Korean regime because they blew up munitions depots and supply lines and routinely ambushed North Korea forces.
Still, Newman didn't think he was out of line when he asked his North Korea tour guides to help him find some of those men he fought with all those years ago.
"I innocently asked my North Korean guides whether some of those who fought in the war in the Mt. Kuwol area might still be alive and expressed an interest in possibly meeting them if they were," Newman wrote. "The North Koreans seem to have misinterpreted my curiosity as something more sinister."
With the benefit of hindsight, he said, "I should have been more sensitive to that."
In his statement, Newman didn't mention an email that the North Korean News Agency released, purportedly from Newman to his old comrades now living in South Korea, asking if there were any messages he could deliver to their relatives still living in the north.
Newman did, however, explain the videotaped "confession'' and "apology" he made on Nov. 9, two weeks after he was taken into custody. In it, his hands shaking, Newman said he killed innocent civilians and blew up communications system.
Newman made the "confession" under "some duress," he wrote.
"Anyone who knows me knows that I could not have done the things they had me 'confess' to," he said.
He did his best to read the confession "in a way that emphasized the bad grammar and strange language that the North Koreans had crafted for me to say," Newman wrote. "I hope that came across to all who saw the video."
The interrogator, he said, repeatedly told him, "If you do not tell the full truth, in detail, and apologize fully, you will not be able to return to your home country. If you do tell the full truth, in detail, and apologize fully, you will be able to return to your home country -- someday."
He was unable to go to Mt. Kuwol during his 10-day visit, he said, when the North Koreans told him a bridge had washed out and the area was inaccessible.
Newman said he was happy to be home.
"I can't tell you how good it is to be home, to be free, and to begin to resume my normal home life."
Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409. Follow her at twitter.com/juliasulek