It sounds like a scene from a spy flick: A weary traveler makes his way to the airport, boards the plane, fastens his seat-belt. Moments before takeoff, something goes wrong. Men in uniform board the aircraft, single out a traveler, and whisk him away.
That’s what happened to Merrill Newman last month. The 85-year old American veteran was on his way home from a 9-day tour of North Korea when he was stopped, pulled from the plane, and detained. Since then, silence. “We’ve heard nothing,” his family told CNN.
What gives? As with much involving North Korea, it is hard to know. The U.S. government, which does not have an embassy in Pyongyang, is working with the family, and only on Nov. 22 confirmed that North Korea is holding an American citizen, though it didn’t confirm any identity. North Korean state media—a regular font of blustery missives on foreign affairs—have yet to comment on the case. Indeed, most of the information we have comes from Newman’s traveling companion, Bob Hamrdla, who reportedly lives in the same retirement home.
What we do know about Newman suggests he is in many ways an unlikely detainee. Six other Americans have been detained in the North since 2009, but most were missionaries (like current detainee Kenneth Bae) or were charged with entering the country illegally (like Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were detained while reporting at the China-DPRK border). His family says Newman, a veteran of the Korean War, was an avid traveler who took Korean lessons ahead of the trip.
The fact that Newman was traveling in the North is not, in itself, unusual. Though the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea may be low on many American’s travel bucket list, a growing number of tourists make the trip each year, drawn by family connections, or a sense of adventure. Visitors must travel with approved tour companies and are closely monitored. But there are a range of options, including bird-watching tours, a golf tour, and a chance to see the country’s Mass Games.
For the most part, these tours are safe. In a statement posted on their Website this week, Koryo Tours, a popular agency, noted that in 20 years of operation, they had never had a tourist arrested or detained. They said they have three groups in North Korea at present and that all tours would continue as usual. Newman and Hamrdla were traveling with a company called Juche Travel Services. “Mr. Newman had in place all necessary and valid travel documents to take his tour,” says David Thompson, a London-based representative for Juche, in an email to TIME. “We have no information concerning what has occurred to result in the current situation.”
If authorities know why Newman was targeted, they are certainly not saying. Besides his age, the only thing unusual about Newman’s trip is the fact that he is a Korean War vet. The Korean conflict is sometimes called America’s “forgotten war,” but it looms large on the Korean peninsula, where the 1953 armistice agreement ended fighting, but brought no peace. On propaganda posters in Pyongyang, the U.S. is still enemy number #1 and South Korea its servile puppet. There is certainly no love for American soldiers.
North Korea watchers also speculate that Newman could be a bargaining chip. Aside from cavorting with Dennis Rodman, Kim Jong Un has been relatively quiet of late. Last spring’s nuke tests and threats of Armageddon came and went, and an unhappy stalemate returned. It is possible that the young dictator will use Newman to secure food aid or the resumption of nuclear talks. Perhaps they will release him as a sign of dictatorial ‘goodwill.’
Glyn Davies, U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, seemed frustrated that the DPRK has yet to name their terms. Speaking to reporters in Beijing, he framed the incident as an opportunity to re-engage. “North Korea could send a very different signal about its interest in having a different sort of relationship with the United States were it to take that step of releasing our citizens,” he said. “It’s a matter of some wonderment to me that they haven’t yet moved on that.”
Newman’s family, meanwhile, faces the prospect of the holidays without him. “All we want as a family is to have my father, my kids’ grandfather, returned to California so he can be with his family for Thanksgiving.” With no word from Pyongyang, that would be a miracle.