It was a mild, sunny afternoon during late September, 2008, when I stepped off the plane at the Sunan International Airport in Pyongyang, North Korea (DPRK). The 90-minute flight from Beijing had itself been non-eventful, except for my safety concerns since I was aboard an Air Koryo airliner. To get to North Korea, one has to fly on the official state airline of the DPRK. Air Koryo, which flies old moth-balled Russian pre-WWII aircraft that are poorly maintained, is easily the world’s worst airline. Due to safety concerns, the airline was added to the list of air carriers banned from flying into the European Union in March 2006.
I breathed a sigh of relief when the plane touched down in Pyongyang. Actual immigration and customs formalities were straight-forward and required only a few minutes. Soon I was aboard a bus traveling along the virtually empty streets of the capital city. The first stop–even before reaching the hotel–was at the USS Pueblo which is moored along the banks of the Pothong River in downtown Pyongyang. This captured American ship is part of the larger “Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum” where thousands of North Koreans learn their country’s version of how, despite the odds, the DPRK was able to capture this “powerful” American ship and subsequently “win” the Korean War. The USS Pueblo has become a spectacular “monument” to the “grand glory” and strength of the armed forces of this tiny communist country. The Pueblo, a Banner-class environmental research ship, attached to Navy intelligence as a spy ship, is the only U.S. ship to be held captive by a foreign government. The Pueblo remains officially “in commission” according to the U.S. Naval Vessel Register.
The “Pueblo incident” occurred during late January 1968. The ship was conducting routine surveillance in the Sea of Japan when it was intercepted by a submarine belonging to the North Korean navy. This DPRK sub approached the Pueblo and challenged its nationality. Following generally accepted naval protocols, the Pueblo raised the U.S. flag. The DPRK vessel then ordered the crew to stand down or be fired upon. Soon the initial sub chaser was joined by three torpedo boats and two Russian MIG fighters. When the American crew members attempted to evade, the North Koreans opened fire, wounding the ship’s commander and two others. The Pueblo never returned fire. With its capture imminent, the Americans continued to stall for time to enable the destruction of classified information. The Pueblo took further fire. Several more crew members were wounded but in the end the U.S. ship was boarded and taken ashore.
The exact spot where the incident occurred was the focus of heated exchanges between the U.S. and North Korea (DPRK). The U.S. has always maintained that this spy ship was in international waters almost 16 miles away from North Korea’s coastline while the North Koreans maintain that the Pueblo had violated its territorial waters.
Once ashore, the 83-man crew was bound and blindfolded and transported to Pyongyang, where they were charged with spying within North Korea’s territorial limit and imprisoned. This event sparked the biggest crisis in two years of increased tension and minor skirmishes between the United States and North Korea. It would be almost a year later before the successful release of these crewmen was negotiated by the State Department.
It would be 40 years later that I traveled to Pyongyang and had the opportunity to tour the USS Pueblo. As I shuffled up the gangplank to enter this rather small ship, I paused to reflect on how I had pulled off this visit to North Korea in the first place. I had found, on the internet, a British-operated tour company located in Beijing that was somehow able to offer these tours and the necessary entry-visa. This company had been somehow able to setup visits to this “hermit” country by establishing and developing contacts in the upper echelons of the North Korean regime. So here I was, in the capital city of Pyongyang against the U.S. State Department’s mandate to NOT travel here under any circumstances, on a visa obtained directly from North Korea by a tour company operating out of Beijing. I had booked this high-risk trip against the advice of my family, my friends, and my government. I must say, as I was about to enter this enemy-held U.S. ship, I thought to myself, “Have I done the right thing in coming here?”
Just inside the USS Pueblo is an open area that contains a display of artifacts and other memorabilia from this “epic battle”–a battle that involved one virtually unarmed U.S. ship pitted against North Korea’s two submarines, two MiG aircraft, and several patrol boats. There were scores of framed pictures that illustrated this magnificent victory over the “imperialist forces from America.” The total disregard for the factual data surrounding this event was astounding!
It was here, onboard the only American ship to ever have been captured and continuously held by another country, that I got my first exposure to the world of propaganda–North Korean style. The guide began by explaining that the Pueblo has been preserved exactly as it was when it attempted “to invade” North Korea in 1968. Believe it or not, he said this with a straight face! He made this egregious claim despite the fact that the only armaments on the Pueblo were two surfaced-mounted machine guns.
Next, every foreign visitor is forced to watch a film, narrated in English, that documents the details of this “glorious victory” over the imperialist forces of the United States–a mighty victory that ended with the “surrender” and capture of this “heavily armed battleship.” It was in this battle–during which the American ship did not return fire–that the meager armed forces of North Korea won a “gallant” victory by “capturing” this American “destroyer.” The truth is, of course, that the USS Pueblo was a spy ship stripped of virtually all its offensive armaments except for two 50-caliber machine guns that were so rusted they would not fire. The ship had been retrofitted and stuffed full of covert apparatus such as cameras, listening devices, radios, telescopes, and other tools of the spying trade.
From the outset, our government demanded that the ship and its crew be returned to the U.S. immediately because the Pueblo had been in international waters when the incident occurred. With the Tet Offensive raging 2,000 miles to the south in Vietnam, President Johnson refrained from ordering immediate retaliation, but the U.S. did initiate a military buildup in the area.
Meanwhile, at least initially, the captured crew resisted demands they sign false confessions, famously raising their middle fingers at the cameras. They told their captors that this was a “Hawaiian good-luck sign.” Ultimately, however, the North Koreans learned the truth about this gesture, and they severely punished the crew members with unspeakable torture that reached new extremes.
Eventually North Korean authorities coerced a confession and apology out of Pueblo Commander Lloyd M. Bucher. This “confession” contained these words: “I will never again be a party to any disgraceful act of aggression of this type.” The rest of the crew also signed a confession under threat of continued torture.
On December 23, 1968, about 11 months after the Pueblo’s capture, U.S. and North Korean negotiators reached a settlement to resolve the crisis. Under the settlement’s terms, the United States admitted the ship’s intrusion into North Korean territory, apologized for the action, and pledged to cease any future such action. That day, the surviving 82 crewmen walked one by one across the “Bridge of No Return” at Panmunjon to freedom in South Korea. They were hailed as heroes and returned home to the United States in time for Christmas.