There's a new clue why an 85-year-old American vet was detained by North Korea

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: The saga of the detained American war veteran in North Korea continues. 85 year old Merrill Newman has been held since late October, when he was taken off a plane by authorities just as he was wrapping up a visit to North Korea. A video of the Korean War vet was released over the weekend. In it, Newman apologizes for his "espionage and subversive activities." He also admits to something he reportedly did do during the Korean War - advising the UN Korea 6 partisan regiment, a secret unit that supported North Korean partisans dighting behind enemy lines. Col. Ben Malcom served as part of a similar unit during the war. His memoir is "White Tigers: My Secret War in North Korea." It's an account of how he led partisans behind enemy lines in North Korea.

Ben Malcom: In 1951, after the US and UN had gone all the way to the Yellow River that separates China from North Korea, and China taxed across the yellow river and forced us all back to Seoul. The South Korean navy had a patrol boat, a ship up near the Yellow River. And what they found was over 10,000 North Koreans hiding behind the lines and pockets of resistance all over North Korea. And they only had 900 weapons and had 10,000 people - only one weapon per 10 mean. So they were requesting weapons, ammunition supplies, and Americans to come in and lead them and train them. And so they formed the first special forces unit in the army in January 1951 and reached out picked up some lieutenants and sergeants - lieutenants like myself - and give us just a minimum amount of training in about ten days and ht]]then shipped us into North Korea to marry up with those units. And so I went into the North Korean January 1952, was in North Korea for 1 year. I was the only American with 800 North Koreans. That's the war in 1953, 350 of those got out alive and are now living in South Korea. And I maintained contact with them by email - in fact I had an email from one of them this morning.

Werman: Colonel Malcom, I'm wondering what this whole mission, the secret mission known as the Coup-All(?) mission - how did that come to be regarded by the North Korean government over the years?

Malcom: The Coup-All was just a mountain, and that's where some of the North Koreans had been fighting and that was the last effort on the main land of North Korea where they were actually forced off the main land, that mountainous area - and forced back out to the islands. And off the west coast we got over 400 islands, all the way from the Yellow River down to Seoul. And, so, during the war we controlled about 50% of those islands, but the operation was classified top-secret code word for over 40 years. So that's the reason most Americans have no idea what we were doing behind the lines in North Korea.

Werman: I don't want you to speculate, Colonel, but if the government of Kim Jong Un knew that Merrill Newman was part of this secret regiment, do you think they'd have been pleased by his presence in their country.

Malcom: I'm not sure that they knew when he got passed, come into North Korea, because it looks like what happened was that he had been to South Korea several times meeting with his 6th Regiment people there who were North Koreans who had come out of North Korea and were still living in South Korea. And when he told them that he was going on a visit to North Korea, then I think they asked him would he check to see if any of their family members were still alive in North Korea. And he started making contacts with his tour guide, all of sudden North Korea, they started looking into his background and I don't think they fully pulled all that together until, actually, he got on the plane and then they arrested him on the plane. I'm just speculating based on the information I had picked up.

Werman: What do you think personally about Newman's choice to go back to North Korea, I mean, would you go yourself?

Malcom: No way I'd go back. You know, when my name up there, and I wouldn't hardly get off the plane before I'd be arrested because not only have I broadcast my own operations in North Korea by America, it's just a little escalations taking place in - all the time, he just caught up and I'm thinking and not probably having all the political information before he went into North Korea. No way I would go into North Korea.

Werman: We're talked to Colonel Ben Malcom. He served in the special forces during the Korean War leading a unit of North Korean partisans behind enemy lines. His memoirs is "White Tigers: My Secret War in North Korea." Thank you very much Colonel.

Malcom: Well, I enjoyed talking to you.