By James Pearson and Alex Dobuzinskis
SEOUL/LOS ANGELES, Nov 22 (Reuters) - When North Korea dragged an elderly American tourist off a plane and detained him four weeks ago, they may have got the wrong man.
Pyongyang may have thought they were detaining a highly-decorated U.S. Korean War veteran, but it may be a case of mistaken identity due to the two men sharing almost identical names.
Frequent visitors to Pyongyang say the reclusive country regularly screens tourists, sometimes with a simple internet name search, so when Merrill E. Newman was grabbed, North Korean authorities may have thought they had nabbed Merrill H. Newman.
Both are U.S. Korean War veterans and both are in their 80s, but Merrill H. Newman was awarded a Silver Star medal for holding off a heavy Chinese attack during the Korean War. China was the North's ally during the war.
"The thought did occur to me, ... that maybe there's a case of mistaken identity," Merrill H. Newman, 84, told Reuters in a telephone interview.
With North Korea still technically at war with the United States, Pyongyang may view the decorated Merrill H. Newman as someone worth detaining.
Merrill H. Newman's distinguished war record may have given him a higher internet profile in an internet name search, that was until news of Merrill E. Newman's detention broke this week.
North Korea has not commented on the arrest of Merrill E. Newman, 85, a retiree from Palo Alto in California, and the U.S. State Department has refused to provide any details of the detention.
PULLED OFF PLANE
Merrill E. Newman was pulled off a plane as he was about to leave North Korea last month.
His son said he was briefly taken aside from his tour on the day before his departure by North Korean officials, one of whom was with the tour group and the other an unknown official who discussed his record in the 1950-53 Korean War.
Merrill E. Newman's service record is not on the public record. All that is known is that he was an infantry officer during the war.
"The Korean War was discussed and my dad's role in the service, and the meeting concluded," Jeff Newman told CNN, describing a conversation between his father and North Korean officials the night before he was due to return home.
North Korea is technically at war with the United States after an armistice rather than a peace treaty ended the conflict.
It was not possible to confirm whether an internet search did take place with North Korean officials, although people who visit the North regularly said they had similar experiences with screening and there were cases of mistaken identity.
"I have been emailed before by someone from a DPRK embassy who has searched on the internet and found something they consider to be undesirable linked to someone with the same name as a tourist whose visa I have applied for," Hannah Barraclough, tourism manager at Beijing-based Koryo Tours, told Reuters.
While veterans from the United States have travelled to the North on special tours arranged for them, some vets may be viewed as unwelcome by Pyongyang authorities.
Merrill H. Newman was cited in his Silver Star nomination for holding off five enemy fighters who were trying to capture wounded men near his command post. He has never returned North or South Korea and said he had no intention of doing so.
"We were doing pretty well until there was an entire regiment of Chinese, and they had constructed a lot of underground tunnels so they just started popping up all over the place," Merrill H. Newman, a former second lieutenant, said of the day in May 1952 when he fought Chinese troops.
Nine of his men were killed and over 35 wounded, according to the medal citation. "They'd just come at you in hordes and you just knock them down," he said from his home in Beaverton, Oregon.
He did not remember how many casualties he and his comrades inflicted on opposing forces, but said that the battle began before sunrise and lasted all day.
Joe Davis, spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said veterans are known to "revisit where they went to war" and he expressed disappointment at Merrill E. Newman's detention.
"It's very unfortunate and it does North Korea no good in the eyes of the world," he said. "We hope that U.S. diplomatic efforts can bring an end to this."
Last year North Korea arrested Korean American missionary Kenneth Bae and charged him with trying to overthrow the state, which is ruled by Kim Jong Un, the third in a line of hereditary dictators. Bae has been sentenced to 15 years of hard labour.
While Bae's religious activities were a matter of public record, there is nothing to link the detained Newman with North Korea beyond his status as a Korean War veteran. (Additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, Steve Gorman in Pasadena and Laila Kearney in Palo Alto. Editing by David Chance and Michael Perry)