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The wife of an 85-year-old military veteran who has been detained in North Korea spoke out Monday in an emotional interview in which she expressed concern for his health.
"One day is as hard as another,’’ Lee Newman told Miguel Almaguer on TODAY Monday. “He just needs to be home, and we want him home for the holidays."
She has not spoken to her husband, Merrill, since he was taken off a plane by a North Korean military official on Oct. 26 while on vacation there.
“It’s hard for his grandchildren,’’ she said. “It’s hard for his whole family. It's been hard. We have a lot of support but when you don't know where your husband of 56 years is, you don't know his health, you don't know when he will be home with us, it's not an easy situation.
“He has people that he loves here and he needs to be back at home.”
Newman, a grandfather, retired technology executive and Korean War veteran, took a 10-day trip on a tourist visa to the peninsula where he once fought. After boarding his flight home with a friend, he was suddenly pulled off the aircraft at Pyongyang's international airport and has not been in contact with his family in Palo Alto, Calif., since. Newman's friend from his retirement home who traveled with him, Bob Hamrdla, is currently back in California.
Newman was detained a day after he and his tour guide had been interviewed by North Korean authorities at a meeting in which his military service during the Korean War was discussed, according to his son, Jeff Newman.
“There's some terrible misunderstanding that's taken place here,’’ Jeff Newman said on TODAY. “There was a conversation that took place about the Korean War and my dad’s service that might have had some tension in it."
Newman has a heart ailment, and is in need of medication, according to his family. The U.S. State Department is working with Swedish officials who represent American interests in North Korea. The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, so Sweden handles the consular issues for the United States in the Asian nation.
No one has spoken with Newman or seen him since he was detained. North Korea has confirmed through Swedish officials in Pyongyang that a U.S. citizen has been detained, but because consular access has not been granted, the detainee's identity is not yet confirmed. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told NBC News that the Swedish embassy has been making daily requests for access.
Jeff Newman told NBC News that he has been in contact with the U.S. State Department and has reached out to former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former ambassador to the United Nations in the 1990s who has experience with issues involving North Korea. Richardson has reached out to his North Korean contacts, a spokeswoman for his office told NBC News last week.
On Nov. 18, the U.S. State Department issued a warning against Americans traveling to North Korea, marking the first warning since Americans began traveling there in 1995. Two other Americans have been arrested in recent years over alleged illegal religious missionary activities, including Korean-American Christian missionary Kenneth Bae, who has been detained since November 2012.