“If you fancy a long weekend with a difference,” writes The Times’ travel section of 18 February 2006, “Regent Travel has a five-day break to Pyongyang, North Korea’s highly planned capital”. The article then mentions, as one of the highlights of the tour, that “You’ll also get to board USS Pueblo, the U.S. spy ship captured in 1968.”
The USS Pueblo, now a Pyongyang tourist attraction and propaganda trophy, is the only U.S. Navy vessel still held captive by a foreign government. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the “Pueblo Incident”, an almost forgotten chapter of Cold War history that continues to cast a shadow on the United States’ tenuous relationship with North Korea. In this blog entry I will attempt to revisit some of the moments of the incident using U.S. Declassified Documents Online and Gale’s Historical Newspapers.
“Oceanographic Research” Gone Wrong
On 23 January 1968, the USS Pueblo was encircled by a fleet of North Korean ships on the eastern coast of Wonsan. Ostensibly, the Pueblo was merely conducting “oceanographic research”. However, in truth, they were on a secret naval intelligence mission to conduct a detailed survey of North Korean military activity.
Outnumbered and outgunned by the North Korean forces, which included four torpedo boats, two subchasers, and two MiG aircrafts, the Pueblo was not in a position to fight back. Commander Lloyd M. Bucher ordered all secret documents and devices to be destroyed while desperately trying to delay their imminent capture. One crew member was fired at and killed by a submarine chaser. The ship was boarded by North Koreans and piloted to the harbour at Wonsan. Her remaining crew of 82 members were captured and imprisoned.
An Increasingly Troubled Administration
The Pueblo incident added to the many issues plaguing President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration in 1968, which turned out to be one of the most turbulent years in U.S. history. Already in Vietnam, only a few days before the Pueblo Incident, the Battle of Khe Sanh had broken out. A week later, the Tet Offensive would begin, changing the course of the conflict and bringing domestic criticism against the war to new heights. To complicate matters further, on 21 January, a North Korean Unit had infiltrated the 38th parallel and raided the South Korean president’s residence in an unsuccessful assassination attempt, heightening tension between the two Korean nations. The threat of opening a second front in an already muddled region constantly worried the administration as they carefully negotiated the crew and the ship’s return.
The first priority for the U.S. was to secure the return of the crew by diplomatic means, as Secretary of State Dean Rusk made it clear in a 31 January meeting between the President and Congressional leaders:
The main problem, however, was how to accomplish this without appearing weak or succumbing to North Korean and Communist pressure. Already North Korea was ruffling the U.S. by broadcasting “confessions” by the ship’s crew, admitting and apologizing for their transgressions, as well as releasing photographs of them writing and signing such “confessions” which were being widely reported in the press.
The “confession” by the ship’s commander Bucher was particularly shocking and humiliating, so much so that the CIA was digging into all of Bucher’s past records to assess his psychological integrity. Their resulting assessment was not very flattering to Bucher: “if one drew a continuum of individual’s performances which range from total withholding of information to clearly excessive verbalization,” writes the report, “Cdr. Bucher would fall somewhere in the middle of this continuum, probably on the side of excessive verbalization.”
Pressure from South Korean Allies
Meanwhile in South Korea, where the aforementioned assassination attempt on their own president had rekindled anti-North feelings, politicians were adopting a bellicose rhetoric, urging the U.S. to abandon diplomacy and use force. “If a single North Korean city is bombed, Pyongyang would immediately invade South Korea,” the vice director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency is quoted as saying, “The only way to make North Korean Premier Kim Il Sung back down, is to bomb all North Korean cities and prevent him from starting a war.”
Such warmongering by South Koreans may seem out of character today (particularly against a pre-nuclear North), but it should be remembered that memories of the Korean War were still fresh among the people, and that South Korea then was run by a military dictatorship. The mood of the times is partly captured in the below Sunday Times report on South Korea, with its haunting opening picture of a child with a toy gun, wearing a helmet that bears the characters “’헌병” (Military Police).
Finding a Face-Saving Solution
Despite repeated protests from South Korea, however, diplomatic negotiations continued. A long series of meetings were conducted in Panmunjom, a village just north of the de facto border between North and South Korea, but very little progress was made in reconciling differences. One particularly thorny issue was whether or not the Pueblo had invaded North Korean waters. The U.S. side repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, unwavering in their claim that the Pueblo was always in international waters:
Whereas the North Korean side continued to attack the U.S. for deliberately invading their territorial waters, and for attempting to cover up this “plain act of aggression”:
As much as the U.S. resented the North Korean claims as false and fabricated, it could not avoid the fact that 82 of their citizens were being held captive, and they needed to strike some kind of deal to guarantee their release. Eventually, Pyongyang issued three “conditions for the release of the crew” (they would not return the ship). These were later summarised as the “Three A’s”:
1) an Admission by the U.S. of its intrusion into North Korea’s territorial waters;
2) a proper Apology for the same;
3) an Assurance against future similar incidents.
Unfortunately, all three A’s were unacceptable to the United States, and the repeated meetings made little progress as the months went by.
There was, however, a dramatic change in the U.S. domestic situation. In late March, President Johnson declared that he would not seek re-election. In June, the leading Democratic candidate Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. In November, the Republican candidate Richard Nixon was elected the 37th President, to be inaugurated in January.
In December 1968, with the clock ticking on Johnson’s administration, the U.S. side finally came up with a rather strange counter proposal: they would sign North Korea’s “Three A’s” letter, provided they were allowed to make an oral statement openly denying the letter’s contents just before doing so!
… and perhaps just as astonishingly, the North Korean side agreed. Thus, on 23 December 1968, eleven months after their capture, and only a few days before Christmas, the 82 crew members were released, “by signing a document of ‘solemn apology’ to the North Koreans, a document which was repudiated by the American representative—with the acquiescence of the North Koreans—even before it was signed.”
In a 1971 Chatham House publication entitled The Conventions of Crisis: A Study in Diplomatic Management, the Australian political scientist Coral Bell cites the Pueblo resolution as an extreme example of the crisis management technique which she calls “ritualized hostilities,” where “one of the parties is not willing to abandon its claim, yet not able to make it effective …, it may opt for the ritual of pressure as a substitute for its actuality.”
If this were so, perhaps the Cold War era can be characterised as a time when such “ritualized hostilities” occasionally saved the world from all-out military collision. It remains to be seen whether the current leaders of the two nations, who have apparently gone the opposite way with a kind of “ritualized friendship” instead, can maintain peace in the Far East. I truly hope so.
Acknowledgement: the author would like to thank Mr. Ian Cho for his help in reading the Korean characters in the Sunday Times article cited.