OBSERVATION POST OUELLETTE, South Korea (AP) — U. S. Vice President Joe Biden stepped foot into the no-man's land between North and South Korea on Saturday, peering out at the furtive nation hours after it released an American tourist the regime had detained for more than a month.
Surrounded on three sides by North Korea, Biden and his granddaughter, Finnegan, looked through binoculars at the enemy soil less than 100 feet away. On the other side of the demarcation line, North Korean troops could be seen staring back.
"Welcome to the edge of freedom," said Lt. Col. Daniel Edwan of the U. N. Command Security Battalion.
"Good to be back," said Biden, who visited the Demilitarized Zone years earlier as a senator.
Biden's visit to this heavily fortified buffer between two arch enemies had long been planned — a capstone to the vice president's weeklong, three county tour of Asia. But Biden and his aides could not have anticipated the added significance imbued by the surprise announcement from Pyongyang just hours earlier.
As Biden was heading to a memorial honoring troops killed in the 1950s war between the North and South, North Korea's government announced that Merrill Newman, an 85-year-old tourist and U. S. veteran, had been allowed to leave the country that had been holding him incommunicado since late October.
"The DPRK today released someone they never should have had in the first place," Biden said, referring to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the country's official name. "At least there's one bright piece of sunshine that he will be released and return to his family."
Biden said he didn't know why the North had freed Newman and said he had "played no direct role" in securing the man's freedom. Pyongyang's state-run news agency said North Korea released Newman because he had apologized for his alleged crimes during the Korean War and because of his age and medical condition.
Still, it was difficult to imagine the timing was coincidental, coming just as the vice president was headed to the DMZ for a visit that was likely to cast attention on Newman's detention and on global concerns about North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
"The release is vintage North Korea," said Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank in Hawaii. "They always try to capture the attention away from something that might make the Republic of Korea look good and get the spotlight on them instead."
Minutes after word of Newman's release broke, Biden reached him by phone in a Beijing airport, where Newman had just arrived on a flight from Pyongyang. Assuring Newman that all of America welcomes his return, Biden offered the elderly American a ride home on Air Force Two. But Newman declined, saying he preferred a commercial flight that would take him straight home to California within a few hours.
"I am very glad to be on my way home," a smiling Newman told reporters at the airport.
The conciliatory move from Pyongyang came at the end of an Asia tour in which deep concerns about North Korea and its nuclear weapons program were never far from the forefront.
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