Merrill Newman a victim of more than North Korea's usual paranoia
New histories show that the Korean War was particularly vicious, its memory still alive
What are we to make of the Merrill Newman case?
The frail, 85-year-old retired American businessman was released on Friday after being held by North Korea for more than a month. During that time, he publicly read a questionable confession of crimes he might have committed during the Korean War in the 1950s.
The story is disturbing on several levels.
Once again it reveals the sharp contrast between the U.S. (and Canada), where that conflict is often seen as the "Forgotten War," and North Korea, where it is remembered every day, and where there is still no peace, only a grudging ceasefire.
As for Newman, his sudden release may be an attempt to show the West the North Koreans can be humane, a hard sell to say the least.
But his prolonged detention, also suggests the North Koreans saw Newman as a way to make Americans face certain realities of that merciless war, realities that the U.S. has never wanted to confront.
Newman, you'll recall, visited North Korea as a tourist to mark the 60th anniversary of the war's end, and suddenly became caught up in something far more complex.
While there, he made the mistake of telling North Korean officials that he had been in charge of training a South Korean partisan unit to infiltrate the North and wage guerrilla war.
He seemed to have thought time had healed the wounds. But across Korea, and particularly in the North, the trauma of a conflict in which a staggering three million Koreans died, half of them civilians and mostly in the North, is still intense.
The 'most hated' group
An added element in this case is that Newman had trained not just any force but a special anti-Communist 6th Partisan Infantry Regiment, known as Kuwol, which made seaborne incursions behind North Korean lines.
The North has long accused members of that group of atrocities on civilians and captured soldiers.
"Newman was very naive to discuss his partisan background with the North Koreans", Bruce Cumings, author of the much acclaimed history The Korean War, told AP news, while the man was still in captivity. "The South Korean partisans were possibly the most hated group of people in the North."
Of course, before we jump to too many conclusions, Newman may be entirely innocent of any transgressions, and his confession, full of odd grammatical mistakes, looks suspicious.
From what we've been told, he was never in combat himself, and only trained partisans at a base camp. We've seen no evidence of any kind to make judgments.
Also, North Korea is one of the most repressive, corrupt and abusive countries on Earth, and its own aggression in the South and numerous war crimes have been long documented.
Complaints about the actions of others do not flow believably from Kim Jong-un's militarized family dictatorship.
Not your grandfather's history
However, when the North complains of war crimes committed against its civilians by South Korean and the U.S. forces, it does have a solid case that has never been given much of an international audience.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Korea, based in Seoul in South Korea, has published evidence of mass shootings by the South and its allies of hundreds of thousands of Korean civilians and prisoners of war.
On top of that, a three-year U.S. bombing campaign obliterated much of the North with scant regard for civilians.
The U.S. fought under the UN flag, with allies including Canada, to defend South Korea after the North invaded in 1950. After China entered on the North's side, this became a classic Cold War showdown, a stark black and white affair, which is how the early histories treated it.
However, more recent studies, with access to new archives, tell a far more nuanced story.
Both South and North Korean were engaged in a long civil war before that invasion, and both had highly oppressive governments.
The South was under the iron grip of its strongman president Syngman Rhee, the North under a Communist dictatorship that survives today.
So oppressive was the South that the New York Times reported in early 1950, just months before the invasion, that large parts "are darkened today by a cloud of terror that is probably unparalleled in the world."
Current estimates are that the South's anti-Communist police, army and militia units killed 100,000 citizens, suspected opponents and political prisoners, before the invasion, and another 100,000 in the first four months after the war started and the UN arrived.
Routine executions of civilians continued throughout the war, often watched over by UN troops.
In his 2010 book, The Korean War, Cumings, blames the North for the invasion and for numerous atrocities, but then notes that subsequent investigations have concluded the South committed many times more of them.
Few of the U.S. acts have been acknowledged because of heavy army censorship at the time, in McCarthy-era America. Since then, Cumings writes, for Americans "Korea is just one among several wars best forgotten."
It took the U.S. government 51 years, for example, to even acknowledge the No Gun Ri massacre of refugees by U.S. soldiers. There were no prosecutions.
Canadian writer Pierre Berton recalled pushing northward behind U.S. troops in 1951 "moving back up the peninsula through villages roasted by our napalm and cities crumbled by our shells… I have some vivid memories of Korea and many of them I wish I could forget."
The North was left largely obliterated, a moonscape. U.S. Air Force estimates the scale of the bombing damage to urban areas surpassed that of Germany or Japan in the Second World War.
Given its relatively small size, it's chilling to read the U.S. dropped 635,000 tonnes of bombs on Korea, plus 35,000 tonnes of the horrifying fire-gel Napalm.
Waged under a UN banner, no less, this may still stand as the most ruthless bombing campaign in history. Surprisingly it did not break the North, but it helps explain why this very inward society can't forget what happened 60 years ago, while the US hates being reminded of it.
None of this excuses North Korea's own abuse of its citizens today, nor its constant war-like posturing and attempts to develop nuclear weapons.
Yet if we accept the Nelson Mandela doctrine that there can never be real peace without, first, truth and then reconciliation, we can understand why that war of dark secrets can poison international relations still.
As for Merrill Newman. He seems to have stumbled into a most unwanted role — that of being the latest symbol of an unreconciled wound that will not heal.