Merrill Newman, a grandfather, Korean War veteran and former high school teacher, was detained while on a sight-seeing trip to North Korea last month, according to his son, who lives in Pasadena. His family has had no contact with him since he was detained.
Jeff Newman said his father went on an organized tour of North Korea that he booked through a travel agent.
"He's had a long-standing and tremendously respectful interest in the Korean culture and the Korean people, and like the vets who have had an interest in going back to Normandy, my dad, who was a veteran of the Korean conflict, wanted to go back to the northern part of the peninsula. This was a lifelong dream of his," said Newman.
But he says when his dad boarded a plane in Pyongyang to leave on Oct. 26, he never made it off the tarmac.
"Apparently, five minutes before they were ready to depart, an authority came on the plane, asked to see my dad's passport, and he was asked to leave the plane," said Newman.
Merrill Newman's traveling companion, Bob Hamrdla, said in a statement, "There has to be a terrible misunderstanding. I hope that the North Koreans will see this as a humanitarian matter and allow him to return to his family as soon as possible."
The U.S. is asking North Korea to release Merrill Newman, along with missionary Kenneth Bae, who was imprisoned in North Korea last year.
"We are working very hard, in particular through our Swedish protecting power in Pyongyang, to try to move this issue along. And we of course are calling on North Korea, as in the case of Mr. Kenneth Bae, who has now been there for over a year," said Glyn Davies, U.S. Special Representative for North Korean Policy.
Stanford University professor and North Korea expert Daniel Schneider says Newman's detention is no misunderstanding.
"The North Koreans are very good at escalating tensions and using crisis as a negotiating tool. Is it going to attract ongoing attention? Absolutely, and I think for the American government, which after all has an obligation to protect American citizens, I think it's going to be a very serious issue," said Schneider.
Newman's son says it's not clear why he was detained, but that he had a difficult conversation with a North Korean official about his service in the Korean War the day before he was taken off the plane.
The U.S. State Department is working to resolve the matter with North Korea's top ally, China. This week, the department revised its travel warning for North Korea to advise all U.S. citizens against going there, saying it had received reports of authorities "arbitrarily detaining U.S. citizens and not allowing them to depart the country."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.