North Korea Captures the USS Pueblo

The event

Crew members of the USS Pueblo are led into captivity after the vessel was seized by North Korean patrol boats in the Sea of Japan on Jan. 23, 1968. (AP)

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 [1].

negotiations

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

The photo that appeared in Time magazine with the accompanying description. (Time)

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.

memory

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 [2]. 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” [3].

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” [4].

The USS Pueblo in North Korea in 2012.

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.

partiality

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 [5].

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.

works cited

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

6 thoughts on “North Korea Captures the USS Pueblo”

  1. I think this article is very well organized and it gives a good picture of what happened to the Pueblo’s crew after their capture as well as the actual ship. I’m also interested in how the crew was later able to sue North Korea and won; who made that judgement and were they biased against North Korea? I’m also surprised to learn that the US admitted guilt in this instance to get the crew members released. This doesn’t sound like something the current administration would do and I imagine the demands today would be much greater than an admission of guilt. Also, as a side note, some additional background into why they were monitoring North Korea in the first place would be useful.

  2. Something really strong about your site of memory is that you included multiple perspectives on the event. I find that sometimes we only include information that is most prevalent when in fact it is also our own act and process of memory. I definitely agree with the partiality of the memory on this event because our opinions are always biased when speaking on North Korea so events like this often get depicted as just another hostile tactic. I do agree with Caroline in regards to including more context as to why the US was monitoring North Korea because I think it would give you another perspective to interpret from. Overall, great job on your analysis.

  3. This article is well written and I like how there is an explanation of the event before its impact on memory or its partiality is analyzed. It is also interesting that while we live in a society fifty years after 1968, we continue to experience the same problems that have not resolved themselves. 1968 serves as a warning for the future, since preventing the “escalating tensions or sparking global nuclear war” is even more prevalent currently. This makes the memory more usable today too. I also like how the article delves into various perspectives. Doing that reinforces the idea that memory is based in culture and emotions, and it is true both the United States and North Korea have very different perceptions of the incident regarding the USS Pueblo. Due to this, I am curious on what basis the American captives were able to sue North Korea on and how. Providing more information about the case could be more beneficial to understanding how the incident impacted the captives’ memories themselves and from a more American perspective.

  4. I would say it’s a really engaging post and the story kept me reading more about how North Korean was able to win the negotiation and finally kept the ship till now. I also like you bringing up this specific case when Tet Offensive that year seemed to be the hottest topic and conflicts. As you mentioned the partiality and materiality of this memory, I personally think there might be a processual understanding of how the ship became a museum by a shore.

  5. Your post reminds me of Otto Warmbier, the American student who was arrested in North Korea in charge of stealing a propaganda poster in hotel. After he was released, he remained in a comatose state and died soon. I want to know your opinion about how might USS Pueblo incident in 1968 influence Americans’ opinion toward the recent one.

  6. Great use of the partiality of memory in how different parties remember the incident, as well as usability in how you referenced the Washington Post’s article this year that reflects on it. I wonder to what extent the American public’s reaction that called the event “a failing of the United States” was affected by the concurrent changing ideas of the Vietnam War; that could be a good concept to explore if you are interested in doing follow-up research on this.

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