1968 was a year of great tension between the United States of America and the forces of communism. One of the most tense incidents was that of the USS Pueblo, a United States Navy ship captured by North Korea. The USS Pueblo was assigned to gather intelligence on North Korea, collecting electronic communications that were leaving that country. It was accosted by North Korean forces on January 22, 1968 and the crew was taken into captivity the next day. From the American perspective this seemed to be a random act of aggression however North Korea claimed that the ship had entered its territorial waters without permission. It is generally agreed upon internationally that territorial waters extend to 12 nautical miles from the coast line of the country. Since the incident, the United States has insisted that the Pueblo never breached that 12 mile boundary. North Korea has similarly never conceded it’s claim that the Pueblo violated its territorial waters although the North Koreans had been known to claim that their territorial waters stretched as far as 50 nautical miles from their coast. The motives for North Korea’s actions were unclear to the United States and even the Soviet Union, North Korea’s most powerful ally, lobbied Kim Il Sung (then leader of North Korea) to return the ship and crew .
Diplomatic negotiations to secure the return of the crew lasted 11 months, during which time the crew members were starved and tortured relentlessly. Due to this treatment, many of the crew signed let
ters admitting that they were American spies. Several photographs were taken of crew members and released to the global media. Many such images feature crew members raising their middle fingers to the camera in a sign of disrespect to their captors. They told the North Koreans that it was a “Hawaiian Good Luck sign”. Time magazine published one of those pictures with a full description of what that gesture meant and the crew was tortured for a week following. On December 23, 1968 the release of the prisoners was finally secured when the United States signed a document admitting guilt in the affair. The ship itself, however, was kept by North Korea.
This event has largely been remembered as a lesson in international relations though the lesson it teaches differs depending on who is remembering. Understandably, some of the captives have remembered it as a war crime. In 2009, three of the captives and the widow of a fourth sued the North Korean government in an American court and won. They were awarded $65,000,000 in damages that they are attempting to secure from frozen North Korean assets . Those survivors remember the event as a tragedy and a reminder of the horrors of war and imprisonment.
By many people, it was remembered as a failing of the United States. Not only did the US respond slowly and allow its soldiers to be tortured for eleven months, but it allowed North Korea to keep the USS Pueblo, which is still a commissioned US Navy ship. “It is true that the USS Pueblo remains a commissioned vessel of the United States Navy to this day. It is sad that the ship has been abandoned by our leaders. But it would be tragic if its story were forgotten by our citizens” .
The incident is also remembered as a lesson in exemplary diplomacy with North Korea. An article published in the Washington Post in 2017 urged President Trump to engage cautiously and diplomatically with North Korea, just as President Johnson did in 1968. This article argued that while the process was slow, it avoided escalating tensions or sparking global nuclear war, “Trump must follow Johnson’s lead and resist the temptation to stir up a hornet’s nest. Emotional decision-making leads to rash actions. In the current crisis, such actions threaten to unleash consequences that the United States cannot contain, including the potential for nuclear war” .
Finally, the USS Pueblo incident is remembered very differently by North Korea itself. North Korea remembers it as a heroic tale and evidence that North Korea is a powerful nation because it took on the United States and won. After the incident, the Pueblo was moved to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, where it serves as a museum and a testament to North Korea’s military prowess.
The event has also generally been remembered as an isolated act of North Korean aggression. This is a partial memory, however. In fact, the capture of the USS Pueblo was just another in a long line of North Korean acts of aggression on the international stage. Following the armistice that ended the Korean war in 1953, North Korea frequently engaged in “border skirmishes” with the South. These skirmishes lasted well into the 1970s and occasionally involved the United States .
The incident involving the Pueblo was an ordeal for the crew, the military, and the American people and while it might not be as well remembered as the Tet Offensive, it will not soon be forgotten.
- Radchenko, Sergey S. “The Soviet Union and the North Korean Seizure of the USS Pueblo: Evidence from Russian Archives .” The SHAFR Guide Online, doi:10.1163/2468-1733_shafr_sim140020076.
- Wilber, Del Quentin. “Hell Hath a Jury; North Korea Tortured the Crew Of USS Pueblo in 1968. 4 Victims Fought for Solace in the Courts.” The Washington Post, 8 Oct. 2009. ProQuest, search.proquest.com/docview/410320278.
- Wood, W. W. “. “The Story of the Pueblo.” The New American, vol. 24, no. 10, May 12, 2008, pp. 35-38. ProQuest, http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/218075357?accountid=14244.
- Longley, Kyle. In Handling North Korea, Restraint is Donald Trump’s Only Option. WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post, Washington, 2017. ProQuest, http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1933052107?accountid=14244.
- Bercovitch, Jacob and Judith Fretter. Regional Guide to International Conflict and Management from 1945 to 2003. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2004. SAGE Knowledge. Web. 25 Apr. 2018, doi: 10.4135/9781452240169.