– Vice President Joe Biden peered into the leafless wilderness of North Korea on Saturday, making a time-honored visit to the demilitarized zone just hours after the North released a U.S. citizen detained by the authorities since October.

North Korea’s freeing of Merrill Newman, an 85-year-old Korean War veteran from Palo Alto, Calif., punctuated an unusually eventful trip by Biden to Japan, China and South Korea that focused, at every stop, on how to deal with the nuclear-armed North.

While the vice president said he had not played a “direct role” in securing Newman’s release, the timing suggested North Korea was exploiting his presence to make a statement. And it leached some of the Cold War-style tension from Biden’s visit to this no man’s land that has hung over previous visits by American leaders.

Standing on an observation deck, Biden looked through binoculars into the North, as a South Korean soldier gave him a routine military status report.

“Welcome to the edge of freedom,” said Lt. Col. Daniel Edwan, commander of the U.N. Command Security Battalion.

“Good to be back,” Biden said.

The vice president’s visit to Asia came at a time of deep uncertainty about the North, with reports that its leader, Kim Jong Un, had ordered a purge of one of his closest relatives, suggesting the possibility of further upheaval. Already, the North has positioned more attack helicopters on its western sea border with South Korea. On Wednesday in Beijing, Biden discussed North Korea at length with China’s president, Xi Jinping, administration officials said. They said Biden, citing the example of Iran, pressed Xi to put more economic and financial pressure on the North to curb its nuclear ambitions.