Why North Korea still shows off the US spy ship it captured in a deadly attack more than 50 years ago

·6 min read
North Korea USS Pueblo sailors
The crew of USS Pueblo at a press conference in North Korea in 1968. Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP Images
  • In January 1968, US Navy spy ship USS Pueblo left Japan for a normal operation off the coast of North Korea, where it could eavesdrop on North Korean and Soviet communications.

  • Days later, however, the Pueblo's mission was interrupted by the North Korean navy, which seized the ship in a deadly attack.

  • More than 50 years later, Pueblo remains on display in Pyongyang, a symbol of the lasting enmity between the US and North Korea.

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Every day, the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang proudly displays a number of war trophies taken from US and UN forces during the Korean War.

But one of the main attractions was seized 14 years after the armistice was signed on July 27, 1953.

Moored on the Pothong River, the USS Pueblo features captured US Navy uniforms, flags, encryption machines, and written confessions by its crew, who were fired on in international waters and taken into custody by North Korea on January 23, 1968.

The incident shocked and embarrassed the US Navy, the National Security Agency, and the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

A routine mission in a tense hotspot

US Navy USS Pueblo North Korea
A North Korean sailor next to the USS Pueblo, August 5, 2007. (AP Photo/Elizabeth Dalziel)

Pueblo was a small spy ship fitted with electronic equipment designed to eavesdrop on North Korean and Soviet communications.

On January 11, 1968, Pueblo set out of Sasebo, Japan, for an intelligence-gathering mission off of North Korea's east coast. At the time, this type of operation was not viewed as particularly risky; almost every country conducted similar missions, and Pueblo was ordered to stay at least 12 miles to 13 miles off the coast in order to remain in international waters.

Pueblo also had no escort, as the US military was focused on Vietnam, where fighting and troop numbers had been steadily increasing since 1965.

But the Korean Peninsula was still extremely tense. North Korean soldiers mounted periodic infiltrations and killed a number of American and South Korean soldiers, and the violations of the armistice were increasing. The US and UN Command recorded 50 such violations in 1966. From the beginning of 1967 to the time of Pueblo's capture, that number skyrocketed to 610.

The attacks were also growing more brazen. Two days before Pueblo's capture, 31 North Korean commandos unsuccessfully assaulted the South Korean president's official residence in Seoul, killing dozens of South Koreans and four Americans.

Assault on the Pueblo

USS Pueblo
US Navy signal intelligence gathering ship USS Pueblo off San Diego on October 19, 1967. US Navy

Pueblo arrived in its area of operation on January 12 and encountered no problems until January 20, when a North Korean submarine chaser spotted it. Two days later, two North Korean trawlers started following it.

The next day the North Koreans were more aggressive. The sub chaser returned, circled Pueblo, and questioned Pueblo's nationality. Pueblo, which had been flying the international signal flag for hydrographic operations, responded by hoisting an American flag.

Having figured out that Pueblo was an intelligence ship, the chaser signaled "heave to or I will open fire." It was then joined by four torpedo boats, who promptly surrounded the Pueblo. Two MiG-21s had also joined the operation and were circling overhead.

Pueblo's commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. Lloyd Bucher, ordered the ship to sail farther out to sea. A chase ensued, but Bucher ordered his men not to man Pueblo's two .50-caliber machine guns, as he did not want to provoke the North Koreans. He believed that as he was in international waters, the North Koreans would not open fire, and that Pueblo could escape.

Pueblo's chief communications technician requested permission to destroy sensitive documents, which his superior denied. The technician ordered his unit to begin destruction anyway, but it was too late.

The North Koreans open fire

US Navy sailors USS Pueblo North Korea propaganda
Lt. Cmdr. Lloyd Bucher and his crew in North Korea in 1968. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP Images)

At 1:32 p.m., two hours after initial contact, the sub chaser opened fire with its 57 mm cannons. Almost simultaneously, the four torpedo boats raked Pueblo with machine-gun fire, immediately wounding two of its crew, including Bucher, who finally ordered the destruction of sensitive material.

That destruction effort faced immediate problems. The crew had not been trained to destroy everything properly, and the ship had so many documents that the incinerator was overloaded. Pueblo radioed for help, but the Navy had no available ships, and the Air Force was unable to respond in time.

Under fire and with no aid coming, Bucher accepted the North Koreans' demand to follow them to the coast. He briefly stopped to buy time for the destruction process but was immediately fired on again by the North Koreans. Four crewmen were wounded, one of whom later died.

Out of options, Bucher radioed his intention to surrender. After following the North Korean escort for almost a half-hour, Pueblo was finally in North Korean waters and was boarded.

A massive propaganda victory

North Korea USS Pueblo
A North Korean military guide leads a tour of the USS Pueblo, January 24, 2018. AP Photo/Eric Talmadge

The capture of Pueblo and its 82 surviving crew was a massive propaganda victory for the North Koreans. Every four days a "confession" of wrongdoing by a crew member was aired on North Korean television, and pictures of surrendering Americans were displayed at every opportunity.

Some of the documents the North Koreans presented were clearly forged or altered; a visual contact log, for instance, showed that Pueblo had traveled 500 miles in 12 minutes, and listed coordinates that would have put it some 32 miles inside North Korea itself.

But the crew was unable to destroy the majority of the classified material they had aboard, making it one of the worst intelligence losses in history.

Korea USS Pueblo
Crewmen from the USS Pueblo are escorted by MPs upon arrival at a US Army hospital near Seoul, December 23, 1968. AP Photo

For 11 months, the crew were subject to countless acts of torture, including beatings, sleep deprivation, and threats of execution. They initially resisted making confessions; in one show of defiance, they raised their middle fingers during photo sessions, telling their captors it was a Hawaiian symbol for peace.

The Johnson administration was thoroughly embarrassed. Military action was considered, but it would've endangered the crew and risked reigniting the Korean War. Moreover, just a week after Pueblo was taken, the Tet Offensive started in Vietnam, drawing US attention away.

Johnson did send additional aircraft carriers and aircraft to the Sea of Japan and South Korea, but the US ultimately agreed to admit wrongdoing in order to secure the crew's release nearly a year later.

Pueblo remains an important symbol for North Korea today. Pyongyang casts the ship as an example of North Korea standing up to the imperialist Goliath and winning without losses. Pueblo is the second oldest US Navy ship officially in service and the only one in the custody of an adversary.

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