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North Korea Once Captured and Detained the Crew of a U.S. Spy Ship for 11 Months


The January 1968 capture of the U.S.S. Pueblo during a spy mission in international waters cost the life of one American sailor and began a grueling 11-month imprisonment for the other 82 Americans aboard. While the Pueblo crew was remembered for their bravery and defiance, including holding up their middle fingers when forced to pose in staged propaganda photos and films, the incident is also considered among the most embarrassing incidents in U.S. naval history.

Though the surviving crew finally made it home on Christmas that year, the Pueblo, itself, stayed in North Korea, and has remained there ever since, serving both as a museum display and a symbol of that country’s victory over the United States.

Escalating Vietnam War in the Backdrop

Nearly 15 years after armistice was declared in the Korean War, diplomatic relations between the United States and North Korea remained nonexistent. “Back then there was virtually no communication whatsoever” between the two countries, explains Michael Robinson, a professor emeritus of East Asian Studies and History at Indiana University who specializes in modern Korean history.

It was the height of the Cold War, and the United States, was focused on containing communism, and on the escalating conflict in Vietnam. Meanwhile, North Korea wanted to win back total control of the peninsula, and thought timing was on its side to encourage a rebellion or some other crisis in South Korea. As Robinson puts it: “North Korea figured that we were overextended, and we weren’t going to respond if they attacked or otherwise tried to destabilize the South.”

The Blue House Raid and Capture of the USS Pueblo

On January 21, 1968, a group of North Korean commandos fought their way into Seoul in an attempt to assassinate the South Korean president, Park Chung-hee, at his official residence, the Blue House. They failed, but dozens of South Koreans were killed in the firefights. Two days later, on January 23, North Korean patrol vessels and torpedo boats surrounded the USS Pueblo, which had been steaming through international waters off North Korea’s eastern coast, listening in on the nation’s communications.

A former environmental research ship that had been converted into a spy ship, the Pueblo was armed with only two machine guns when the North Koreans opened fire. Ten sailors were wounded, one fatally, and after repeatedly radioing for help, the Pueblo’s commander, Lloyd “Pete” Bucher, made the decision to surrender his ship. The North Koreans boarded the Pueblo and had it towed into the eastern port city of Wonsan, taking the remaining 82 Americans aboard (including two civilian oceanographers) as prisoners.

The U.S. Response

The Pueblo’s sailors were able to burn much of the classified information on board before their capture, but a National Security Agency report (declassified in 2012) stated that the loss “would dwarf anything in previous U.S. cryptologic history.” This was also the first hijacking of a U.S. Navy vessel since the Civil War, and it occurred at exactly the wrong time for the United States. “The Tet Offensive happens January 30, so you can see that the United States is completely unable to really respond to this,” Robinson says. “All sorts of hell was breaking loose. And [President Lyndon B.] Johnson is politically very weak at this point.”

In considering retaliation for the Pueblo’s seizure, the Johnson administration weighed options including a naval blockade of North Korean ports, air strikes on military targets, a ground attack across the Demilitarized Zone separating North from South Korea or even the use of a nuclear weapon. In the end, however, Johnson decided against military action, instead making a “show of force” by ordering hundreds of combat planes and 25 warships to the Sea of Japan near South Korea.

“I think they might have [struck back] if they had been in a different military posture,” Robinson speculates. “They might have tried something more serious. But frankly, I think they were worried about getting the people back from the Pueblo.”

Ordeal of the Prisoners

Bucher and the rest of the Pueblo’s crew spent a harrowing 11 months in captivity, during which they were tortured, forced to sign confessions and subjected to relentless propaganda by their captors. At first they resisted, famously raising their middle fingers at the camera and telling the North Koreans it was the “Hawaiian good-luck sign.” Once the North Koreans learned the truth, they punished the prisoners with beatings, cold temperatures and sleep deprivation, according to a lawsuit some of the Pueblo’s crew would later file against the North Korean government.

After protracted negotiations, the United States apologized for spying, and on December 23, 1968, the men were allowed to cross the DMZ into South Korea, carrying the body of Duane Hodges, who had died of wounds sustained in the attack on the ship. They flew back to the United States on Christmas Eve, malnourished and scarred by the torture they had endured.

USS Pueblo Becomes a North Korea Propaganda Tool

Though it is still an officially commissioned U.S. Navy ship, the USS Pueblo sits today in the Victorious War Museum in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. “It’s a hostage,” Robinson says, but it is also a tourist attraction and propaganda tool, a symbol of North Korea’s defeat of an enemy it had despised since the Korean War.

Ahead of President Trump and Kim Jong Un’s meeting in Singapore on June 11, 2018, some called for the return of the Pueblo to make it onto the agenda, though the ship’s fate was among many other weighty topics as nuclear weapons and disarmament and the possible repatriation of the remains of U.S. troops killed during the Korean War. As one former Pueblo seaman and POW, Tom Massie, told the New York Post of the captured ship on which he and his comrades began their long and painful ordeal, “I would like to see it returned because it is a part of our history.”


North Korea to put captured US spy ship on display

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PYONGYANG, Korea, Democratic People’s Republic Of – If there was ever any doubt about what happened to the only U.S. Navy ship that is being held by a foreign government, North Korea has cleared it up. It’s in Pyongyang. And it looks like it’s here to stay.

With a fresh coat of paint and a new home along the Pothong River, the USS Pueblo, a spy ship seized off North Korea’s east coast in the late 1960s, is expected to be unveiled this week as the centerpiece of a renovated war museum to commemorate what North Korea calls “Victory Day,” the 60th anniversary this Saturday of the signing of the armistice that ended hostilities in the Korean War.

The ship is North Korea’s greatest Cold War prize, a potent symbol of how the country has stood up to the great power of the United States, once in an all-out ground war and now with its push to develop the nuclear weapons and sophisticated missiles it needs to threaten the U.S. mainland.

Many of the crew who served on the vessel, then spent 11 months in captivity in North Korea, want to bring the Pueblo home. Throughout its history, they argue, the Navy’s motto has been “don’t give up the ship.” The Pueblo, in fact, is still listed as a commissioned U.S. Navy vessel, the only one being held by a foreign nation.

But with relations generally fluctuating in a narrow band between bad to dangerously bad, the United States has made little effort to get it back. At times, outsiders weren’t even sure where North Korea was keeping the ship or what it planned to do with it.

Requests for interviews with the captain of one of the North Korean ships involved in the attack were denied, and officials here have been tight lipped about their plans before the formal unveiling.

The Pueblo incident is a painful reminder of miscalculation and confusion, as well as the unresolved hostilities that continue to keep the two countries in what seems to be a permanent state of distrust and preparation for another clash, despite the truce that ended the 1950-1953 war.

Already more than 40 years old and only lightly armed so it wouldn’t look conspicuous or threatening as it carried out its intelligence missions, the USS Pueblo was attacked and easily captured on Jan. 23, 1968.

Surrounded by a half dozen enemy ships with MiG fighter jets providing air cover, the crew was unable to put up much of a fight. It scrambled to destroy intelligence materials, but soon discovered it wasn’t well prepared for even that.

A shredder aboard the Pueblo quickly became jammed with the piles of papers anxious crew members shoved into it. They tried burning the documents in waste baskets, but smoke quickly filled the cabins. And there were not enough weighted bags to toss all the secret material overboard.

One U.S. sailor was killed when the ship was strafed by machine-gun fire and boarded. The remaining 82, including three injured, were taken prisoner. The North Koreans sailed the Pueblo to the port of Wonsan.

For the survivors, that’s when the real ordeal began.

“I got shot up in the original capture, so we were taken by bus and then train for an all-night journey to Pyongyang in North Korea, and then they put us in a place we called the barn,” said Robert Chicca of Bonita, Calif., a Marine Corps sergeant who served as a Korean linguist on the Pueblo. “We had fried turnips for breakfast, turnip soup for lunch, and fried turnips for dinner. … There was never enough to eat, and personally I lost about 60 pounds over there.”

Although the ship was conducting intelligence operations, crew members say that most of them had little useful information for the North Koreans. That, according to the crew, didn’t stop them from being beaten severely during interrogations.

“The Koreans basically told us, they put stuff in front of us, they said you were here, you were spying, you will be shot as spies,” said Earl Phares from Ontario, Calif., who was cleaning up after the noon meal in the galley when the attack began. “Everybody got the same amount of beatings in the beginning.”

North Korea said the ship had entered its territorial waters, though the U.S. maintained it was in international waters 15 miles off the nearest land.

The incident quickly escalated. The U.S., already deeply embroiled in the Vietnam War, sent several aircraft carriers to the Sea of Japan and demanded the captives be released. Just days before the attack, North Korean commandos had launched an assassination attempt on South Korea’s President Park Chung-hee at his residence.

North Korea responded by putting members of the crew before cameras to confess publicly. The crew members planted defiant codes into forced letters of confession and extended their middle fingers in images sent around the world. That led to further beatings when the North Koreans figured out the gesture’s meaning.

On Dec. 21, 1968, Maj. Gen. Gilbert H. Woodward, the chief U.S. negotiator, signed a statement acknowledging that the Pueblo had “illegally intruded into the territorial waters of North Korea” and apologizing for “the grave acts committed by the U.S. ship against” North Korea. Both before and after, he read into the record a statement disavowing the confession.

The hostages were released across the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two Koreas two days before Christmas — 335 days after their capture.

The Navy considered a court-martial for the ship’s captain, Cmdr. Lloyd M. “Pete” Bucher, for letting the Pueblo fall into enemy hands without firing a shot and for failing to destroy much of the ship’s classified material. But he was never brought to trial. John H. Chafee, secretary of the Navy at the time, said Bucher and the other crew members “had suffered enough.”

To this day, members of the Pueblo crew say Bucher made the right decision, though years later his second-in-command publicly questioned Bucher’s decisions not to fight.

“It would have been nice to take out some of the guys, some of them, and maybe go down fighting, but it would have been total suicide,” said Phares. “We never thought anything would happen, and we weren’t supposed to create an international incident.”

In 2002, former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Donald P. Gregg said a North Korean foreign ministry official hinted at a deal to return the Pueblo. But when he later visited Pyongyang, he said he was told the climate had changed and a return was no longer an option.

In January the next year, Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell reintroduced a resolution in Congress asking North Korea to return the ship. There has been no progress since, however, at least none that has been made public.

“The ship was named after Pueblo, Colorado, and they would have loved to have the ship back,” Chicca said. “It’s very disappointing to have it still there, and still being used as anti-American propaganda.”

The planned display of the ship by North Korea hangs over the heads of the crew members who have long campaigned for its return.

“I’ll never give up, but I don’t think it’s ever coming back,” Phares said. “It’s just unfortunate that we got put in that situation, and that the top brass blamed us, or blamed Bucher, for everything.”


The USS Pueblo Incident — Assassins in Seoul, A Spy Ship Captured

January of 1968 saw two of the most serious incidents to occur on the Korean peninsula since the end of the Korean War. Skirmishes had become common along the demilitarized zone since 1967, but none were more brazen than the attempt by North Korean commandos to assassinate President of South Korea Park Chung-hee the night of January 21. An elite North Korean unit successfully crossed the DMZ and came within 100 meters of the Blue House, the president’s official residence, before being thwarted by South Korean security forces.

The failure of this mission may have prompted the North Koreans to seize the American naval intelligence ship, the USS Pueblo, on January 23. While collecting signals intelligence in international waters near the North Korean coast, the ship was attacked and captured, with one crew member killed and the rest taken hostage. The North Koreans claimed the ship had violated their territorial waters, an accusation which the United States vehemently denied. Diplomatic efforts to free the hostages dragged on for eleven months, until they were repatriated on December 23, 1968. The tensions that arose from these two incidents nearly sparked another major armed conflict on the peninsula and strained relations between the U.S. and South Korea.

Richard A. Ericson was the Political Counselor in Seoul at the time he was interviewed by ADST’s Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in 1995.

Blue House Raid: North Korea’s Attempt to Assassinate the President of South Korea

ERICSON: To the Koreans, the Blue House raid was certainly the most critical event — and I mean the Blue House raid, I do not mean the Pueblo — during that 1965-68 period, because it came as the culmination of a long series of incidents on Korean territory. People were very tense and [South Korean President] Park used this tension to justify many of his repressive measures.

As I say, he was very fond of quoting President Lincoln to all the congressmen who came through protesting these measures, both during this period and my later assignment.

Thus the Blue House raid came at a time when there already was a hell of a lot of tension. Park was feeling very unhappy about a number of things. He was beginning to think, I believe, that his commitment to Vietnam had weakened him too badly. He was starting to agitate for more military aid to Korea. And then we got reports that thirty or more well-armed North Koreans had been seen inside the DMZ by a couple of woodcutters. They had been allowed to go back to their village with a warning that if they told anyone that North Koreans were in the country the intruders would come back and wipe out the whole damn village.

Well, of course word spread immediately through the South Korean government and it threw up road blocks, mobilized internal security teams, and covered all the routes into Seoul. But the infiltrators just plain disappeared. For two days they were not heard from.

Then about 9:00 p.m. on January 21, a cold, cold night, a column of men in South Korean uniforms came marching from the North toward a police checkpoint on the road that ran along the south side of Puk-san toward the Blue House [the official residence of the South Korean head of state]. This checkpoint had been established specifically to look out for the infiltrators.

The police challenged this column and their leader, using remarkably good Korean psychology, told the South Korean policeman to button his damn lip. He said that his men were ROK CIC [Republic of Korea Military Intelligence] returning to the barracks following a search mission. He sneeringly told the police that they should know better than to muck around with the CIC. And, of course, the police backed off.

But one of the guys in the police block was a little annoyed by this. He felt it was embarrassing to be talked to like that. So he radioed his headquarters to complain that they should have been warned that there were CIC in the area. The headquarters came back after a while and said, “There are no CIC in your area.” A police lieutenant on duty at the Blue House heard the broadcast and decided to investigate. He got into his jeep and intercepted the column.

By this time it was within 800 yards of the Blue House and into a fairly heavily populated area. Seoul in those days was not all that populated to the north now it is. You couldn’t do this thing today. The lieutenant challenged the column and was promptly killed. The North Koreans opened fire on him, but in the process they opened fire on everybody else around them, killing and wounding a number of civilians, including passengers on a bus. Then, strangely, they separated into groups of two or three. They apparently had no dispersal plan, no contingency plans as to what they should do if something happened before they got to the Blue House.

To make a long story short, they split into small groups and the ROK devoted enormous resources to rounding them up. They captured two almost immediately, I think two more just disappeared and were never heard from, and the rest were all killed in fire fights with ROK security forces. Of the two they captured, one they took to the local police station. Once inside, he managed to detonate a grenade he had concealed on his person, killing himself and about five senior Korean police officials. They didn’t shake him down very well, obviously. But the other one, after severe interrogation, broke down and told all about himself and his unit.

We were not aware that there were units of this kind, but he said there was an organization of at least a thousand people currently undergoing training in North Korea for just such missions. The Korean military had never heard of anything like this, so they asked him where they had trained. He told where the camp was and drew a map of its layout.

When the spy plane photographs were developed, the camp was where he said it

was and his map was almost an exact overlay of the photos. They asked him whether these units used radio during their training. Yes. Frequencies? He gave them frequencies. The ROK denied ever having heard anything on these. He suggested they try again, and up they came.

So we began to believe this guy. He said that their primary mission was to assassinate President Park. They were supposed to deploy not very far from where they had been intercepted, they were getting pretty close. Their idea was to rush the Blue House, raise hell, and kill Park, who was there. He also said that their original mission had been to split into three groups, one of which was to go to the American military headquarters at Yong-san and kill the UN Forces Commander and other senior officers, such as the UN representative to the Armistice Commission.

The third group was to come into American Embassy Compound One and kill the Ambassador and anybody else they could lay their hands on there.

As I say, we believed him. It so happened that the girls high school right next to the wall of that compound had a very large open play area, but a new building was being constructed right alongside the wall, where a lot of construction materials were piled. The wall might as well not have been there. We had armed security guards, but we didn’t trust them all that much.

So, at that point the Ambassador issued a weapon to each family in Compound One and some residents of Compound Two. And the UN Command designated a platoon of tanks to stand by to go to our rescue should the North Koreans come again. The tank crews were billeted in the Yong San post gymnasium, thus depriving soldiers and high school kids of their basketball court, and the tanks got lost trying to find the compound on the one attempt they made to hold a dry run of the rescue effort. But the knowledge that they were there was reassuring to some.

Of course, the Blue House raid was never duplicated, but the North Koreans had succeeded in making everyone nervous.

Dump the North Korean Corpses on the Conference Table

Anyway, Park went ape over this incident. It came close. It clearly demonstrated that his phobia on assassination was well grounded and he reacted by doing what he occasionally did in periods of great stress. He went up to the mountains with a couple of friends and a couple of ladies and a large supply of alcohol and disappeared. But we got stories that he was enraged, just beside himself, out of control.

Now, the Koreans looked upon this threat to their president as a major, major event, and we were seriously concerned that out of that mountain fastness of his would come the order to go get them, to cross the DMZ, seeking retaliation of some kind. But he was out of touch and there was no way that you could get to him directly.

Meanwhile, the ROK security forces were hunting down the infiltrators and finally found all but one. The way they broke the one prisoner, incidentally, was to align all of the bodies on a hillside, 26 or 27 corpses in various states of disrepair, and march their prisoner along the line. This was a man who was still refusing to talk.

When his escorts reached the last body, they kicked its head and the head rolled off down the hill. At that point, they say, this fellow decided that he would be willing to tell all.

As far as dealing with the North Koreans was concerned, some ROK generals felt that if they weren’t going to declare war, they should at least haul the corpses up to Panmunjom and, after flaying the North Koreans verbally, dump them on the conference table. However, calmer heads eventually prevailed.

But it was several days after the Blue House raid that the Pueblo was seized, and that is where we really got into trouble with the South Koreans. They had no knowledge that the Pueblo was there.…

USS Pueblo Incident: “They had no idea of what it meant to attack an American vessel”

The Pueblo was Noah’s Ark rigged with electronic listening gear. I say Noah’s Ark because it was what we used to call a Baltic Class freighter, a slow, most inefficient, very small coastal freighter. I forget what its tonnage was. Maybe under a thousand, I can’t remember. It was not armed, except for a few small arms. It was a sad excuse for a U.S. Navy vessel.

But this particular ship was one of the Navy’s electronic intelligence gathering vessels and it had replaced a similar ship called the Banner, which had been there for quite some time. It was fairly new on the job, but it had been patrolling up and down the coast of North Korea, picking up what it could by way of North Korean electronic activity. CINCUNC [Commander in Chief, UN Command] may have known it was there I don’t know. But the ambassador was not informed and neither were the South Koreans.

It was approached by North Korean patrol boats off the North Korean port of Wonsan. I think it was pretty clearly in what we considered international waters. It was likewise pretty clearly not in what the North Koreans considered international waters. They were claiming a 12-mile limit at the time and the ship’s orders were to stay outside the three-mile limit. The North Koreans were certainly aware that it was there and had been for some time. They had tolerated it, probably not wanting to kick up a major fuss. But then when the Blue House raid came along, they took it, killing one seaman and capturing eighty-two….

They

were fearful that since the Blue House raid had failed to kill Park, he might order some kind of major hostilities and they didn’t want a vessel with this kind of capability there. It was something to be gotten out of the way.

You have to remember the North Koreans had been taking South Korean boats on the high seas regularly. It was their habit to pick up South Korean fishing boats, take their crews off, brainwash them and send them back to South Korea. There had probably been 50 to 100 incidents of that kind.

I don’t think they were fully sensitive to what the taking of a U.S. naval vessel would mean to us. Anyway, it turned out that it meant a great deal to the U.S. as a nation and to its leaders, much more than the Blue House raid.

One of our major points of difficulty with the South Koreans was that they thought the Blue House raid, an assassination attempt on their president, was by all odds the more important event. To them, the Pueblo was a sideshow. And back in the United States, Americans from Lyndon Johnson down thought that the Pueblo seizure was the heinous crime of the century and the Blue House raid was something few had heard about. That became a real bone of contention between us.

Washington reacted violently to the Pueblo, and Johnson ordered the carrier Enterprise, which had just finished a visit to Sasebo, to come steaming up the east coast of Korea and to station itself off Wonsan. The idea was maybe we were going to take out Wonsan and all its defenses and recapture the ship. Or perhaps it was simply to intimidate the North Koreans into acceding to whatever demands we might make for reparations.

All kinds of wild ideas were floated about what our reaction should be. Our main concern in the embassy was trying to get Washington to focus on the fact that there was a real problem with the South Koreans because of the Blue House raid and the disparity between our reaction to it and the Pueblo. We were not concerned as much with the North Koreans, who probably were not interested in a real war at that time but who would respond certainly if attacked.

“The South Koreans were more emotional than rational”

That, of course, was what determined the United States to send the Enterprise back on its way. Those interested in a cold assessment of the situation rather than histrionics estimated that it would take everything the Enterprise had and probably a good deal more to penetrate the air envelope around Wonsan and that we might very well find ourselves facing a full-scale war in Korea if we tried to do anything of that kind. My own feeling was that if we had attacked Wonsan it would have encouraged Park to the point where he might just–UN commander or no UN commander–order South Korean forces to go. The man was out of touch with reality during this whole period.

So we had to figure out how to get the ship and the crew back. That is where we got into further difficulty with the South Koreans. The South Koreans, more emotional that rational, were already, many of them, looking at our reaction as pusillanimous. Of course they weren’t aware, although perhaps they should have been aware, that the forces that we had in Korea, two divisions, the 2nd and 7th, were in very bad shape.

They had about two-thirds of their complement of troops, the shortfall being made up by KATUSAs [Korea Augmentations to the U.S. Army]. These were basically Korean soldiers detailed to serve with American units. That was always an iffy situation they never fit in very well, although some of them did very, very good work and certainly without them we would have been in vastly worse shape.

Incidentally, the Blue House raiders had deliberately come right through the 2 nd Division’s lines. The captured raider said that they figured they couldn’t get through the South Koreans because the South Koreans did their patrolling, kept awake, did not smoke cigarettes on the line, did not huddle together for warmth and all that kind of thing. Whereas, he said, the Americans up along the DMZ smoked….

You could smell their smoke, you could hear them talking they did huddle together when it got very, very cold and did rely on electronic sensors installed at American — but not South Korean — positions. But a lot of these sensors–anti-personnel radar, seismic detectors, and stuff like that–had been developed for battle in Vietnam. But unfortunately nobody had made sure they functioned as well when the temperature sank to 20 degrees below zero. And they didn’t.

The 2nd Division commander was furious when he heard this North Korean say they came right through his lines. They took him up to the fence–there was a big chain link fence along the entire front of the 2nd Division’s lines–and the commander said, “Prove it to me.”

The Korean went up to the fence at the point where he indicated they had penetrated and kicked it, and a large section of the fence fell out. He knew exactly where to go, and this incident certainly enhanced his credibility. Incidentally, they had come down over the hills. During the two days that they were undetected it was way below freezing all day and all night. It was a marvelous feat of endurance, carrying all their equipment over rough and mountainous terrain in vicious winter weather and getting to Seoul so fast.

Negotiations in Panmunjom: “The South Koreans were furious”

How to get the crew of the Pueblo back became our main concern, but to us in Seoul placating the South Koreans was as important. And, of course, our tactics in getting the crew back made the South Koreans even angrier. The embassy wasn’t really consulted very much in this as I recall. The powers that be in Washington decided, once it became clear that negotiations with the North Koreans were possible, that they should be held at Panmunjom.

We discarded various other possible places. And the North Koreans, with their own objectives in mind, wanted Panmunjom. Washington decided to use the United Nations Command representative to the Military Armistice Commission, at that time a U.S. Navy rear admiral, and his American staff and to do it at Panmunjom.

Now Panmunjom has been called a village, but it is not a village and never was a village it was just an inn. It is now and was then just a full-fledged armistice meeting place and it was regarded as neutral territory. It was close to the scene, with good communications for both the North Koreans and us and therefore had a lot to recommend it.

The problem was the South Koreans regard it as their territory. The idea was our team would negotiate directly with the North Koreans and no other nation represented in the UN Command would be present. We wouldn’t take any of the UN Command members and most specifically we wouldn’t take any South Koreans. The North Koreans had the Chinese with them for every meeting from the very beginning.

When word of our intentions reached the South Koreans, they erupted. When their initial protests were delivered to Bill Porter, then our ambassador, he gave them sort of short shrift and this enraged them to the point that they would not talk to him. They said that they would refuse to discuss this matter with Ambassador Porter. Anyway, we were going ahead to do it.

Q: Was this being called pretty much from Washington?

ERICSON: Yes, entirely. At first, it was being called by Lyndon Johnson personally. He was on the telephone a number of times when the Enterprise was there. The Department quickly set up an inter-agency crisis team. The South Koreans were absolutely furious and suspicious of what we might do. They anticipated that the North Koreans would try to exploit the situation to the ROK’s disadvantage in every way possible, and they were rapidly growing distrustful of us and losing faith in their great ally.

Of course, we had this other problem of how to ensure that the ROK would not retaliate for the Blue House raid and to ease their growing feelings of insecurity. They began to realize that the DMZ was porous and they wanted more equipment and aid. So, we were juggling a number of problems. But once the venue for the negotiations was agreed on with Pyongyang, we had to find solutions for our problems with the South Koreans. Park, by this time, I think, had returned to Seoul.

It was decided that I would be the operating officer in Seoul on the Pueblo negotiations. The official arrangement was that Admiral Smith, who was the UN Military Armistice Commission representative, would be the chief and only negotiator for us. He would take his negotiating team up there, all military personnel except for one Korean-American civilian employee (the invaluable Jimmy Lee) and they would conduct each negotiating session.

They would then return directly to the embassy, where I and some of the political officers would debrief them. We would write the immediate reporting cable covering the highlights of what had happened, and then we would also transcribe and send the verbatim text of the meeting, which had been taped.

Then we would review the transcript and concoct an interpretation of what had happened, what the significant points were, and add whatever comments and recommendations the embassy might have for what was going on. I am not sure what impact our recommendations ever had.

Then, after that had been done, it was my job to inform the ROK Government of what had transpired, because as part of keeping them in place we had agreed to keep them informed of each step along the way. I would have to do this by going up to the Foreign Ministry, usually around 10 or 11 at night, into that freezing cold, enormous stone building, the old Japanese capitol which housed the Foreign Ministry, among others. The lights would be out and the elevators not working. I could hear a scurrying sound in the dark corridors of that ghostly building.

I would walk up the four floors to the office of Park Kun, who was the director of North American Affairs at the Foreign Ministry at that time and my good golfing buddy. The Koreans’ idea was that only he and I could communicate on this subject because only he and I had a friendship capable of withstanding the strains created by this terrible thing that we were doing. The scurrying, of course, was newspapermen who were hiding around the building and would get a debrief from Park after I talked to him.

I would sit down in Park’s office and he would read me the riot act. Every time I was told exactly how we were giving the North Koreans the status and propaganda ammunition they craved while trampling on the sensitivities of the South Korean people and undermining their confidence in us and in our alliance.

I used to ask Park, ‘Why don’t you just put it on tape and I will take it home with me. Then we can get right down to business and I can go home and go to bed?’ But I think his diatribes were delivered under orders so that I would report duly that the South Koreans were still outraged. ….From about the first of April until I left in July there wasn’t that much to tell the South Koreans because meetings at Panmunjom were less frequent and there wasn’t all that much happening….

The North Korean negotiators were never empowered to act

But in the first two months, when we were meeting almost every week, some interesting things emerged. For one, we got a good look at North Korea’s negotiating style. People should study the Pueblo sessions whenever there are negotiations with the North Koreans, because I think they show how their system functions and why they are so difficult.

As one example, we would go up with a proposal of some sort on the release of the crew and they would be sitting there with a card catalog…

If the answer to the particular proposal we presented wasn’t in the cards, they would say something that was totally unresponsive and then go off and come back to the next meeting with an answer that was directed to the question. But there was rarely an immediate answer. That happened all through the negotiations.

Their negotiators obviously were never empowered to act or speak on the basis of personal judgment or general instructions. They always had to defer a reply and presumably they went over it up in Pyongyang and passed it around and then decided on it. Sometimes we would get totally nonsensical responses if they didn’t have something in the card file that corresponded to the proposal at hand.

George Newman, who was then DCM in Seoul, and I were quite proud of the telegram we wrote sometime in fairly early February, just before Washington finally decided to negotiate at Panmunjom. We called it the slippery slope telegram and it is somewhere deep in the Department’s archives. We based it on our analysis of what had happened in previous incidents, not like the Pueblo but the two or three incidents we had had of people who strayed across the border or got shot down, killed or captured.

What we said in effect was this: If you are going to do this thing at Panmunjom, and if your sole objective is to get the crew back, you will be playing into North Korea’s hands and the negotiations will follow a clear and inevitable path. You are going to be asked to sign a document that the North Koreans will have drafted. They will brook no changes. It will set forth their point of view and require you to confess to everything they accuse you of…

If you allow them to, they will take as much time as they feel they need to squeeze every damn thing they can get out of this situation in terms of their propaganda goals, and they will try to exploit this situation to drive a wedge between the U.S. and the ROK. Then when they feel they have accomplished all they can, and when we have agreed to sign their document of confession and apology, they will return the crew. They will not return the ship. This is the way it is going to be because this is the way it has always been.

And that is pretty much what happened. We went back and forth, back and forth, for ten or eleven months. We very quickly abandoned the idea of

getting the ship back. We figured it had been dismantled and all its sensitive equipment sent to Moscow.

We thought they might eventually tire of holding the crew, because the propaganda value of holding the crew would erode with time and they might be leery of having the situation turn against them if the crew started to become ill and their care began to appear inadequate, as eventually it would.

Of course, there were all these incidents of the crew being interviewed and sending messages by signs, etc. The crew held up pretty well I think, except for perhaps one or two members.

“Here, you sons of bitches, is your goddamn sheet of paper”

On our side, the chief negotiator proved to be something of a problem. Rear Admiral Smith was too much his father’s son and too much of a Navy man. It galled him beyond description to think that a U.S. naval vessel had been taken by a gunboat on the high seas. There was a lot of talk at the time that the ship should have been scuttled the captain should have gone down with his ship…

He was replaced by an Army general named Woodward, who had dealt with communists and their negotiating tactics in Berlin. Smith had had absolutely no political dealings in his life. But Woodward came from this background in Berlin and his first words when he came to the Embassy to talk to us were, ‘Well, what are you bastards going to have me do? Let’s get it over with.’ He was the negotiator who achieved the final result. He was a delight to work with….

[Earlier] a feisty American Armistice Commission representative named Ciccollella had been negotiating for weeks for the return of the body of a helicopter pilot who had strayed into North Korean territory. The North Koreans had stonewalled everything and had insisted he sign a document admitting all sorts of evil intentions on the part of the dead pilot. General Ciccollella finally got authority to sign that paper.

What he didn’t get authority for was what he did spontaneously, and that was to sign it and hand it over while saying, ‘Here you sons of bitches is your goddamn sheet of paper. It isn’t worth the paper it is written on. The only reason I am giving it to you so that we can get the body of this man back.’

He continued with something like, ‘You people should be ashamed of your conduct. You are not worthy of wearing the uniform of a soldier. I spit on you.’ The North Koreans took it with equanimity, looked at the paper, saw it met their requirements, and returned the body.

And that, on a larger scale, is essentially what happened with the Pueblo. I am given to understand that back in Washington, Jim Leonard – he was a member of the task force – was shaving one day and moaning because they hadn’t reached a solution and things were just stumbling along, when his wife asked whether they had tried offering to give the North Koreans the paper they wanted.

The piece of paper they wanted of course was to acknowledge that the Pueblo was a spy ship, that it was trying to steal the secrets of the People’s Republic of Korea, that it had repeatedly penetrated (even though we had proven at the negotiations that it had not penetrated) their coastal waters without authority and with the intention of spying, and to apologize for the gross insult to the North Korean people. That was the essence of it.

Leonard’s wife said, ‘Have you ever thought of giving them their piece of paper and then denouncing it orally?’ Jim took it to the Department and said, ‘Will you try this?’ It should have been suggested long ago because there was a history for it.

Washington approved it and Woodward was instructed to say, ‘I will give you exactly what you want, but I am going to denounce it publicly as I do.’

They said, ‘Okay.’ And that is what happened. He did give them the piece of paper and he said in effect, ‘It is a worthless piece of paper and doesn’t mean a thing and is not a reflection of what happened. But we give it to you simply to effect the release of the crew.’ The crew came back.

That period was, I think, the low point in our relations with the South Koreans. What happened on the Blue House raid and the Pueblo left the Korean’s feeling that we had behaved badly where their interests were concerned, that they were a hell of a lot weaker along the DMZ than they thought, there was more danger in Northeast Asia than they had thought, and that they had weakened themselves unduly by sending two divisions and a brigade to Vietnam.

Pueblo Crew Crossing the Bridge of No Return


Former N. Korea Prisoner Sees Pueblo as Cautionary Tale

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In 1968, North Korea captured the USS Pueblo and took the ship’s 82 crew members captive for nearly a year.

The so-called "Pueblo incident" cast a long shadow over relations with Pyongyang, which on Saturday unexpectedly released two other detained Americans. The American sailors suffered physical and mental abuse that, their former executive officer said, is never far from mind.

Edward R. Murphy was second in command of the Pueblo while on a mission in the Sea of Japan to gather intelligence on Soviet and North Korean activity.

Several ships had harassed the Pueblo for days, he said. But on January 23, 1968, North Korean torpedo boats opened fire on his poorly equipped vessel.

"There was an exchange of fire, but it was one way, because we didn’t fire. We couldn’t man the weapon," Murphy said.

The attack killed one sailor. Murphy and nine others were wounded.

The North Koreans took over the ship and some of its classified material. They immediately transported the crew to Pyongyang, where Murphy said the abuse began.

"They’re beating you with rifle butts and karate kicking you, and they actually beat the side of my head," said Murphy. "… My ear lobe was separated."

An 11-month ordeal

Murphy’s ordeal lasted for 11 months while the U.S. government worked to secure the crew’s release.

Murphy was one of the last to cross to freedom over the so-called Bridge of No Return in the Korean Demilitarized Zone.

In the years since then, his impression of North Korea has not improved. "That’s not a very friendly country toward Americans," he said. "Their people are trained to hate us."

A repeat of history

Forty years after his own detention, Murphy saw history repeating itself when North Korea imprisoned several American visitors to the country.

"They haven’t changed much," he said of North Koreans. "The only value of the political prisoner is propaganda, and the more the U.S. press publicizes an event, the more the North Koreans love it, the more they are going to persist."

"What the North Koreans want is direct talks with the United States," said former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who has traveled to North Korea three times and helped secure the release of other Americans.

The North Koreans said they were willing to receive him again, but he was frustrated by the conditions they set.

"The proviso they put on it is that I would have to go as an official representative of the U.S. government," Carter said. "I informed the U.S. State Department about this, but the American government has decided that they do not want to send me over if I am an official representative of the U.S. government."

Pueblo as tourist attraction

Propaganda value has kept the USS Pueblo on display in North Korea. The captured American spy ship, which remains one of the oldest commissioned ships in the U.S. Navy, is a tourist attraction in Pyongyang.

"I think it’s a tragedy," Murphy said. "That ship should have come home with the crew."

Murphy’s mistreatment at the hands of the North Koreans is still evident in the way he walks today. He hopes his story, and the stories of other Americans detained in the communist country in recent years, will serve as a cautionary tale to those who seek to voluntarily travel to North Korea.


North Korea Almost Started a Nuclear War When It Captured a U.S. Spy Ship

Many of the Pueblo&rsquos crew went on to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and lifelong physical injuries. Over time, however, the crewmembers put up their own website testifying to their experiences, successfully lobbied for status as prisoners of war after it was initially denied to them, and sued North Korea in U.S. court for their treatment. As for the Pueblo itself, technically the second oldest ship still commissioned in the U.S. Navy, it remains in North Korean custody to this day. It is currently moored off the Potong River in Pyongyang, where it serve as an exhibition of the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.

A U.S. Army light freighter launched during World War II, the fifty-four-meter-long Pueblo had been recommissioned by the Navy in 1966s to serve as an &ldquoenvironmental research ship,&rdquo with two civilian oceanographers on board. This was a flimsy cover for the truth: the Pueblo was a spy ship, charged with intercepting and recording wireless transmissions and monitoring electronic emissions. Periodically, the Pueblo would transmit its findings using a sixteen-foot parabolic antenna on its deck to beam a signal towards the moon, where it would reflect back to the Earth for reception by Navy antennas in Hawaii and Maryland.

The lightly armed and ponderous Pueblo&mdashcapable of a maximum speed of only thirteen knots (fifteen miles per hour)&mdashwas not supposed to place itself in real danger, however. Like other &ldquotechnical research ships,&rdquo it could sail safely within international waters&mdashno closer than twelve nautical miles from shore&mdashand still listen in. The Soviet Union had its own spy ships, and so both sides of the Cold War had to tolerate the presence of the others&rsquo electronic spies.

Today, signals intelligence remains a common form of espionage&mdashand a basically legal one, so long as the ships involved do not stray into territorial waters and aircraft stick to international airspace. Recently, the Russian spy ship Viktor Leonov was observed thirty miles off the U.S. East Coast. U.S. Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft routinely intercept signal traffic from North Korea and other nations. However, these electronic spies can only operate so long as the nations they are spying on respect the norms of international law&mdasha risky proposition when tensions are high and the nation in question is governed by a capricious regime.

That January, the Pueblo was assigned by the NSA to intercept signal traffic from Soviet ships in the Tsushima Strait between Japan and Korea, and gather intel on North Korean coastal radars and radio stations. Her mission proceeded uneventfully until it encountered a North Korean subchaser (a corvette-sized vessel) on January 20. Two days later, it was spotted by two North Korean fishing trawlers, which passed within thirty meters of it. The Pueblo&rsquos captain, Lt. Cmdr. Lloyd Bucher, informed the U.S. Navy and proceeded with the final phase of his mission.

Bucher was left unaware, however, that tensions between the two Koreas had just escalated dramatically. Near midnight on January 21, thirty-one disguised North Korean infiltrators came within one hundred meters of the South Korean presidential residence, the Blue House, in an attempt to assassinate President Park Chung-hee before being confronted and dispersed in a blaze of gunfire and exploding hand grenades. A shaken President Park put his troops on high alert and pressed for the United States to retaliate.

At noon on January 23, the Pueblo once again encountered another SO-1&ndashclass subchaser. The cannon-armed vessel closed on the Pueblo at high speed and challenged its nationality, to which Bucher raised the American flag. Next, the smaller boat transmitted: HEAVE TO OR I WILL FIRE. Bucher replied I AM IN INTERNATIONAL WATERS. In fact, the U.S. Navy stipulated that he keep his vessel several miles outside the boundary.

The subchaser&rsquos captain was not satisfied, and continued to close on the Pueblo. Soon afterwards, two North Korean MiG-21 fighters swooped low over the 890-ton spy ship, and three P-4 torpedo boats joined the subchaser to surround the American vessel. Bucher turned the ponderous Pueblo around and made full speed eastward, managing to worm his ship away from a torpedo boat that attempted to land a boarding party toting AK-47s. The North Korean boats began raking the Pueblo with heavy machine-gun fire and blasting at it with the fifty-seven-millimeter cannon on the subchaser. Shrapnel sprayed across the bridge, wounding Bucher.

The Pueblo&rsquos only weapons were two unloaded .50 caliber machine guns wrapped up in ice-coated tarps. (The spy ships were supposed to keep their defensive weaponry discrete.) The machine guns lacked gun shields and only one crewmember had been trained in their use. Bucher judged that any crew members attempting to load and fire the weapons would be massacred by the nearby boats, and that a few .50 caliber machine guns would not be of much use against an adversary armed with torpedoes and cannons.

Bucher was in radio contact with the U.S. Navy, but it had no forces ready to come to his ship&rsquos aid. The four F-4 Phantom fighters on alert on the carrier USS Enterprise, roughly six hundred miles away, were not loaded with antiship weapons and would take an hour to rearm. Eventually, the U.S. Air Force scrambled a dozen F-105 fighter bombers from Okinawa. &ldquoSome birds winging your way&rdquo was the last message Bucher received. The aircraft never arrived, however it turned around while over South Korea.

Meanwhile, a second subchaser and a fourth torpedo boat had joined the assault on the Pueblo. Reluctantly, Bucher ordered his crew to begin destroying the classified documents and encryption gear on his ship, and signaled the North Korean ships that he would comply with their instructions. He turned the Pueblo back towards North Korean waters, but proceeded at only four knots to buy his crew&mdashand the promised air support&mdashmore time.

But progress was slow. The crew had only two paper shredders and a single incinerator purchased by Bucher before the mission, using money from the crew&rsquos recreational fund after the U.S. Navy refused his request for a rapid-destruction device. The crew tried its best anyway, tossing top-secret documents into the water, bashing sophisticated encryption machines with fire axes and sledgehammers, and attempting to create a bonfire out of yet more classified material.

There were simply too many documents. Bucher halted the Pueblo just before entering North Korean waters in an attempt to delay. The North Korean vessels promptly opened fire again, and a fifty-seven-millimeter shell nearly tore the leg off of fireman Duane Hodges, causing him to bleed to death. Ultimately, Bucher turned the ship back on course. At 3 p.m., North Korean sailors finally boarded the ship, blindfolding and beating the crew and piloting the Pueblo into Wonsan harbor. The crew was then paraded through a mob of enraged civilians into captivity.

The North Korean attack came at the worst possible moment. Seoul feared renewed attacks across the demilitarized zone, and threatened to withdraw South Korean troops from Vietnam. The war in Vietnam was heating up, as a North Vietnamese forces embarked on a series of preliminary attacks culminating in the epic Tet Offensive. A CIA A-12 spy plane from Project Blackshield located the Pueblo in Wonsan harbor on January 28. CIA director Richard Helms thought the North Koreans had launched the attack as part of a Soviet plot to relieve pressure on Vietnam.

Declassified documents reveal that President Johnson considered options ranging from mining Wonsan harbor or organizing a naval blockade, to launching a battalion-sized ground attack on part of the demilitarized zone and air strikes. Ultimately, however, he chose to go with a show force, deploying hundreds of combat aircraft and three aircraft carriers to South Korea, and mobilizing fourteen thousand Air Force and Navy reservists. Soon the Soviet Union offered to aid in securing the release of the Pueblo&rsquos crew if the United States drew its forces back down. Not wanting to get drawn into a second Korean War just as fighting was intensifying throughout South Vietnam, Johnson decided to draw down his forces, and offered Seoul additional military aid on the condition that it did not instigate a clash with North Korea.

Pyongyang, for its part, trumpeted its capture of the Pueblo, which it falsely claimed had intruded in North Korean waters. (North Korea defines &ldquointernational waters&rdquo as beginning fifty nautical miles, rather than twelve, from its shores.) In time, North Korea began issuing photos of the captured American crew and a signed confession from Captain Bucher, causing the CIA to assemble a psychological profile of the Pueblo&rsquos commander in an attempt to gauge his loyalty. The crew&rsquos plight evoked an outpouring of sympathy in the United States, and even inspired a Star Trek episode.

In truth, the Pueblo&rsquos crew was being brutally tormented, subject to daily beatings and undergoing hours of interrogation. Captain Bucher in particular was battered until he urinated blood, made to sit through his own mock execution, and shown a mutilated alleged South Korean spy as a warning of the consequences of not cooperating. At one point he went on a five-day hunger strike to protest the wretched food provided to his crew, which was so inadequate that one petty officer lost 40 percent of his bodyweight and nearly went blind. Finally, a North Korean interrogator threatened to execute the Pueblo&rsquos youngest crewmember, nineteen-year-old Howard Bland, in front of Bucher if he did not sign a confession, to be followed by the rest of his crew. This threat finally moved Bucher to sign the confession.

The American crew was eventually moved to a better facility, where they were inundated with propaganda videos. The sailors attempted to clandestinely resist by formulating oddly worded confessions and flipping their middle fingers when posing for photos, which they explained was a &ldquoHawaiian Good Luck&rdquo sign to their interrogators. Unfortunately, a Time magazine article eventually gave this ploy away to their captors, who subjected the prisoners to a week of brutal torture as a punishment.

Meanwhile, U.S. diplomats were slogging through months of negotiations at the border village of Panmunjom&mdashtalks slowed down by the North Korean negotiator being forced to read his points from cards, lacking the permission to formulate his own replies to American offers. Pyongyang was completely unwilling to return the Pueblo, and would only return the crew in exchange for a signed apology, a confession of guilt from the U.S. government, and a promise never to spy on North Korea again.

U.S. negotiator Gen. Gilbert Woodward struck on a way of making this demand palatable: in a gesture of mutual bad faith agreed upon in advance, the United States told the North Koreans it would sign such a document with the understanding it would retract the confession as soon as the crew of the Pueblo was returned. Kim Il-sung&rsquos negotiator found this acceptable.

The eighty-two surviving crew members and one body were bussed down to the border crossing at the Bridge of No Return on December 23, 1968, exactly eleven months after the North Korean attack, where they walked back into American hands. As promised, Washington promptly rescinded its apology.

The crew was given a jubilant reception upon their return to the United States, but Captain Bucher was made to sit before a Navy court of inquiry. &ldquoDon&rsquot give up the ship!&rdquo is an unofficial rallying cry of the U.S. Navy, and to the admirals of the court, Bucher had committed a cardinal sin when he surrendered his nominally armed vessel&mdasheven though attempting to shoot back would simply have led to the slaughter of the Pueblo&rsquos crew. The admirals recommended a court martial, perhaps unmindful of an earlier classified report that found the U.S. Navy leadership culpable for sending the Pueblo, unprepared and unsupported, into a dangerous situation. Navy Secretary John Chafee, however, declined to press charges, telling the press that &ldquothey have suffered enough.&rdquo

The capture of the Pueblo marked a worst-case disaster scenario for U.S. intelligence, as the ship had carried a dozen top-secret encryption machines and coding cards. North Korea is believed to have flown eight hundred pounds of equipment from the Pueblo to Moscow, where it was reverse engineered, allowing the Soviets to tap into U.S. naval communications. The U.S. Navy was erroneously comforted by the belief that the Soviets lacked the new codes necessary to decrypt those signals, not realizing that the John Walker spy ring had just begun to furnish these to Moscow. This left U.S. naval communications compromised for nearly two decades.

The assumption that the Pueblo incident was orchestrated by Moscow was ill founded, however. Though the Soviet Union was committed by treaty to come to North Korea&rsquos defense, the Brezhnev government made clear it would not enter into war with the United States over a provocation from Pyongyang. Diplomatic communiqués released after the end of the Cold War reveal that Moscow was upset by the North Korean attack, which may have been egged on by promises of support from China, which was attempting to secure Pyongyang&rsquos loyalty in the bitterly divided Eastern Bloc. A week after the Pueblo was captured, Kim Il-sung demanded additional economic aid from Moscow&mdasha request which was reciprocated in a bid to pay off the North Korean leader into deescalating tensions with the United States.

Although Pyongyang profited from playing one patron against the other, its attack on the Pueblo was probably primarily motivated by the failure of its assassination plot in South Korea. Anticipating possible attacks from South Korea or the United, it may have seen taking the Pueblo as a preemptive move in an imminent conflict, or as a means to gain leverage over Washington and sow dissension between the United States and South Korea.

Many of the Pueblo&rsquos crew went on to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and lifelong physical injuries. Over time, however, the crewmembers put up their own website testifying to their experiences, successfully lobbied for status as prisoners of war after it was initially denied to them, and sued North Korea in U.S. court for their treatment. As for the Pueblo itself, technically the second oldest ship still commissioned in the U.S. Navy, it remains in North Korean custody to this day. It is currently moored off the Potong River in Pyongyang, where it serve as an exhibition of the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master&rsquos degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.


North Korea to put US spy ship captured in 1968 on display

The only US navy ship being held by a foreign government is expected to go on display this week as the centrepiece of a North Korean war museum.

With a fresh coat of paint and a new home along the Pothong river, the USS Pueblo – a spy ship seized off North Korea's east coast in the late 1960s – will be unveiled at a renovated war museum to mark what Pyongyang calls Victory Day, the anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended hostilities in the Korean war 60 years ago on Saturday.

The ship is North Korea's greatest cold war prize, a potent symbol of how the country has stood up to the great power of the United States, once in an all-out ground war and now with its push to develop nuclear weapons and sophisticated missiles.

Many of the crew who served on the vessel, who spent 11 months in captivity in North Korea, want to bring the Pueblo home. Throughout its history, they argue, the navy's motto has been "don't give up the ship".

The Pueblo is still listed as a commissioned navy vessel, the only one being held by a foreign nation. But the US has made little effort to get it back. At times outsiders were not even sure where North Korea was keeping the ship or what it planned to do with it.

The Pueblo incident is a painful reminder of miscalculation and confusion, as well as the unresolved hostilities that continue to keep the two countries in what seems to be a permanent state of distrust and preparation for another clash despite the truce that ended the 1950-53 war.

Already more than 40 years old and only lightly armed so that it would not look conspicuous or threatening as it carried out its intelligence missions, the USS Pueblo was attacked and easily captured on 23 January 1968. Surrounded by half a dozen enemy ships with MiG fighter jets providing air cover, the crew was unable to put up much of a fight.

They scrambled to destroy intelligence materials but soon discovered they were not well prepared for even that. A shredder aboard the Pueblo quickly became jammed with the piles of papers anxious crew members shoved into it. They tried burning the documents in waste baskets, but smoke quickly filled the cabins. And there were not enough weighted bags to toss all the secret material overboard.

One US sailor was killed when the ship was strafed by machine gunfire and boarded. The remaining 82, including three injured, were taken prisoner. The North Koreans sailed the Pueblo to the port of Wonsan, where for the survivors the real ordeal began.

"I got shot up in the original capture, so we were taken by bus and then train for an all-night journey to Pyongyang in North Korea, and then they put us in a place we called the barn," said Robert Chicca, a marine corps sergeant who served as a Korean linguist on the Pueblo. "We had fried turnips for breakfast, turnip soup for lunch, and fried turnips for dinner … There was never enough to eat, and personally I lost about 60 pounds over there."

Although the ship was conducting intelligence operations, crew members say most of them had little useful information for the North Koreans. They say they were beaten severely during interrogations.

"The Koreans basically told us, they put stuff in front of us, they said you were here, you were spying, you will be shot as spies," said Earl Phares, who was cleaning up after the noon meal in the galley when the attack began. "Everybody got the same amount of beatings in the beginning."

North Korea said the ship had entered its territorial waters, though the US maintained that it was in international waters 15 miles off the nearest land. The incident quickly escalated. The US, already deeply embroiled in the Vietnam war, sent several aircraft carriers to the Sea of Japan and demanded the captives be released.

North Korea responded by putting members of the crew before cameras to confess publicly. The crew members planted defiant codes into forced letters of confession and extended their middle fingers in images sent around the world. That led to further beatings when the North Koreans figured out the gesture's meaning.

On 21 December 1968, Major General Gilbert H Woodward, the chief US negotiator, signed a statement acknowledging that the Pueblo had "illegally intruded into the territorial waters of North Korea" and apologising for "the grave acts committed by the US ship against" North Korea. Before and after, he read into the record a statement disavowing the confession.

The hostages were released across the demilitarised zone that divides the two Koreas two days before Christmas, 335 days after their capture.

The navy considered a court martial for the ship's captain, Commander Lloyd M "Pete" Bucher, for letting the Pueblo fall into enemy hands without firing a shot and for failing to destroy much of the ship's classified material. But he was never brought to trial. John H Chafee, secretary of the navy at the time, said Bucher and the other crew members had "suffered enough".

To this day members of the Pueblo crew say Bucher made the right decision, though years later his second-in-command publicly questioned Bucher's decisions not to fight. "It would have been nice to take out some of the guys, some of them, and maybe go down fighting, but it would have been total suicide," said Phares. "We never thought anything would happen, and we weren't supposed to create an international incident."

In 2002 the former US ambassador to South Korea Donald P Gregg said a North Korean foreign ministry official had hinted at a deal to return the Pueblo. But when he later visited Pyongyang, he said he was told the climate had changed and a return was no longer an option.

In January the next year, the Colorado senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell reintroduced a resolution in Congress asking North Korea to return the ship. There has been no progress since, however – at least none that has been made public.

"The ship was named after Pueblo, Colorado, and they would have loved to have the ship back," Chicca said. "It's very disappointing to have it still there, and still being used as anti-American propaganda."

The planned display of the ship by North Korea hangs over the heads of the crew members who have long campaigned for its return. "I'll never give up, but I don't think it's ever coming back," Phares said. "It's just unfortunate that we got put in that situation, and that the top brass blamed us, or blamed Bucher, for everything."


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North Korea responded by putting members of the crew before cameras to confess publicly. The crew members planted defiant codes into forced letters of confession and extended their middle fingers in images sent around the world. That led to further beatings when the North Koreans figured out the gesture’s meaning.

On Dec. 21, 1968, Maj. Gen. Gilbert H. Woodward, the chief U.S. negotiator, signed a statement acknowledging that the Pueblo had “illegally intruded into the territorial waters of North Korea” and apologizing for “the grave acts committed by the U.S. ship against” North Korea. Both before and after, he read into the record a statement disavowing the confession.

The hostages were released across the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two Koreas two days before Christmas – 335 days after their capture.


The chase

On January 23rd USS Pueblo was approached by a submarine chaser and her nationality was challenged. The crew responded by raising the United States flag.

The North Korean vessel then ordered the Pueblo to stand down or to be fired upon. The crew of the USS Pueblo then attempted to maneuver the ship away. However, the ship was considerably slower than the submarine chaser. Warning shots were fired by the North Korean ship.

Over the Horizon 3 North Korean torpedo boats appeared. They started to chase the Pueblo as well and to attack the ship.

Damage to the USS Pueblo

The North Korean attackers were soon joined by Mig Fighters. A 4th torpedo boat and a 2nd submarine chaser then appeared on the horizon a short time later.

The ammunition on the Pueblo was stored below the decks and the machine guns were wrapped in cold weather tarps. This meant that the machine guns were not manned and no attempt was made to man them.

The USS Pueblo was seriously outgunned by 2 Submarine chasers, 4 torpedo boats, and 2 MIG fighters.

The crew of the Pueblo had been in contact with the Naval Security Group in Japan all throughout the incident. The 7th Fleet command was fully aware of the Pueblo situation. Air cover was promised but it never came. There were no aircraft on alert and it was estimated a 2 to 3-hour delay in launching aircraft. The USS Enterprise was located 510 nautical miles to the south of Pueblo. However, her 4 planes on alert were not equipped for an air-to-surface engagement. The Enterprise Captian was also estimated that it would take 90 minutes to get the aircraft into the air. The USS Pueblo was on her own.


$2.3 Billion Awarded to USS Pueblo Crew, But How to Collect From North Korea?

More than 50 years ago, North Korea captured the USS Pueblo and subjected the spy ship's crew to "barbarity" for almost a year, treatment that "required medical and/or psychiatric intervention" for the men upon their release in December 1968.

Today, crew members and their families face the challenge of finding North Korea's assets so they can realize their shares of a $2.3 billion judgment against Pyongyang handed down by a U.S. district court.

In a memorandum opinion issued Feb. 16 but filed and made public Wednesday, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia stated that "North Korea was liable" for "its incorporated theories of assault, battery, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, solatium, and wrongful death."

The court awarded compensatory and punitive damages to 171 plaintiffs, including living crew members, the estates of deceased crew members, and living family members and the estates of deceased family members.

The court granted a baseline award of $3.35 million for each crew member, which would amount to $10,000 for each of the 335 days that the crew members were held in captivity by the North Koreans. Further awards are based on calculations that allow for variations within the groups.

But the decision included the finding that, "As a result of the barbarity inflicted by the North Koreans, almost all [crew members] required medical and/or psychiatric intervention. The majority have suffered, and continue to suffer, from post-traumatic stress disorder, impaired memory, intrusive flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance, anxiety, anger, depression, guilt, and withdrawal from others. Many have undergone invasive surgical procedures to ameliorate the physical damage resulting from the relentless torture they underwent as prisoners. Several have attempted to numb their pain through alcohol and drugs, and most have seen their domestic and/or professional lives deteriorate. A few have contemplated suicide."

"Justice is served insofar as the courts are concerned," Mark Bravin, the lead attorney representing the plaintiffs of the USS Pueblo case, told VOA's Korean Service.

VOA contacted the North Korean mission in New York for a response but left a voicemail message after being unable to talk with anyone.

More than 100 crew members and their families filed a lawsuit against North Korea in February 2018 under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. It allows victims to sue a foreign government listed as a state sponsor of terrorism for torture, hostage-taking, personal injury or death.

In November 2017, former President Donald Trump redesignated North Korea under the state sponsors of terrorism list after it was removed from the list by former President George W. Bush in 2008. The reinstatement cleared the way for Pueblo survivors and their families to pursue a lawsuit against North Korea.

The total damages the court awarded in the Pueblo case are the largest amount awarded in a state-sponsored terrorism case.

The plaintiffs are unlikely, however, to recover funds directly from North Korea, which has a history of ignoring such lawsuits.

However, each plaintiff, if found eligible, may receive up to $20 million available through the U.S. Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund, which was set up to compensate the victims of state-sponsored terrorism.

Bravin said the distribution from the fund is subject to some conditions to prevent individual claimants from "monopolizing" the fund.

"They don't get more money after their $20 million is received until everybody else has gotten their money," Bravin said. "Once somebody gets 30% of their money, [the distributions] are paused so that others can [get theirs]."

Joshua Stanton, an attorney based in Washington, D.C., who helped draft the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016, said the plaintiffs have the option of seeking "the rest of their money from the North Koreans."

"The way they will typically try to go after that is [through] frozen properties of the government of North Korea," he said.

An example of a frozen asset could be U.S. dollars that a North Korean bank tried to wire through a bank in New York City to a Chinese bank, Stanton said.

"The North Koreans usually do use the dollar system to move their money around," he added.

"They would wire it to a bank account somewhere. But the funds would go through a bank within U.S. jurisdiction. The bank does some checks on the names, addresses, passport numbers of the parties. They would get their software to go on an alert. They would freeze the funds and notify the Treasury Department," he said.

In the case of the parents of Otto Warmbier against North Korea, Frederick and Cynthia Warmbier filed a claim against the North Korean-flagged vessel Wise Honest in July 2019 to obtain a North Korean government asset to pay part of the $500 million judgment awarded to them.

Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, visited North Korea in 2015 and died shortly after returning to the U.S. in a vegetative state in June 2017.

The federal court in the District of Columbia in December 2018 ordered the judgment against North Korea after the Warmbiers filed a lawsuit in April 2018, holding the country liable for the torture, hostage-taking and extrajudicial killing of their son.

The U.S. Marshals Service auctioned the Wise Honest in 2019 and, as is customary, did not release how much was realized.

The Pueblo was seized by the North Korean navy in January 1968 while the U.S. ship was operating in international waters off the coast of North Korea. The Pueblo was engaged in an intelligence-gathering mission to intercept communications between Pyongyang and Moscow.

After 11 months of suffering repeated beatings and torture, surviving crew members were released at the Demilitarized Zone dividing North and South Korea. The spy ship is moored along a river in Pyongang as part of North Korea's Victorious War Museum.

Aside from the damages awarded to the crew and their family members, Bravin said the return of the Pueblo would give them peace of mind.

"One additional thing that could happen that would give peace of mind to the crew is if the United States and North Korea could find a way to get the Pueblo returned to the United States," Bravin said. "It's been an issue of concern for the crew forever."

Christy Lee contributed to this report, which originated on VOA Korea.


North Korea makes captured USS Pueblo centerpiece of war museum

PYONGYANG, North Korea &mdash If there was ever any doubt about what happened to the only U.S. Navy ship that is being held by a foreign government, North Korea has cleared it up. It’s in Pyongyang. And it looks like it’s here to stay.

With a fresh coat of paint and a new home along the Pothong River, the USS Pueblo, a spy ship seized off North Korea’s east coast in the late 1960s, is expected to be unveiled this week as the centerpiece of a renovated war museum to commemorate what North Korea calls “Victory Day,” the 60th anniversary this Saturday of the signing of the armistice that ended hostilities in the Korean War.

The ship is North Korea’s greatest Cold War prize. Its government hopes the Pueblo will serve as a symbol of how the country has stood up to the great power of the United States, once in an all-out ground war and now with its push to develop the nuclear weapons and sophisticated missiles it needs to threaten the U.S. mainland.

The USS Pueblo was attacked and easily captured on Jan. 23, 1968. Many of the crew who served on the vessel &mdash and who spent 11 months in captivity in North Korea &mdash want to bring the Pueblo home. But with relations generally fluctuating in a narrow band between bad to dangerously bad, the United States has made little effort to get it back.


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