- In December 1967, the Pueblo, an American Navy vessel, leaves Pearl Harbor, heading for Yokosuka, Japan.
- In January 1968, the Pueblo begins its first mission, conducting electronic intelligence operations off the coast of North Korea. It is one of 800 international surveillance missions then being carried out by the United States.
- On January 21, North Korean commandos slip into Seoul, South Korea, under orders to decapitate South Korea’s president, Park Chung Hee. The raid is thwarted.
- Both North and South Korean forces go on ‘red’ alert.
The Capture: January 23, 1968
- The Pueblo, a spy ship, comes under attack by North Korean forces. Six gunboats and two jets attack the intelligence collector as it tries to pinpoint radar and other military installations off North Korea’s eastern coast.
- The captain soon surrenders, with one dead and numerous wounded.
- North Korean forces quickly board the ship, soon towing it and her 83 crewmen to Wonsan.
- As the war in Vietnam rages on, the Johnson administration blames a larger Communist conspiracy, not Pyongyang. President Johnson refuses to accept the possibility that North Korea might have acted independently.
- CIA Director Richard Helms agrees that ‘it’s all about Vietnam, stupid’, warning that North Korean has acted for two reasons:
“to hinder the movement of Koreans to South Vietnam and to harass the US in its conduct of the war in Vietnam.”
- Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze suggests that the attack is intended to pressure the US into taking “a weaker position on Vietnam negotiations.”
- President Johnson concurs stating:
“The North Koreans were aware of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, which was scheduled to take place eight days later. They were trying to divert U.S. military resources from Vietnam and pressure the South Koreans into recalling their two divisions from that area.”
Communist Bloc Archives
- Recently released Communist bloc archives show that there was no conspiracy behind the Pueblo seizure.
- The North Koreans acted alone to bolster internal propaganda emphasizing Kim Il Sung’s strong leadership.
- The Pueblo attack actually drove a wedge between North Korea and its Communist allies.
- Moscow demanded that North Korea “show reserve, not to give the Americans an excuse for widening provocations, to settle the incident by political means.”
- US political leaders fail to consider the possibility of an internal motive, instead seeking solutions rooted in conventional Cold War approaches.
- In February, United States and North Korean negotiators begin meeting secretly at Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone.
- Throughout 1968, American policy makers negotiate with North Korean representatives but never fully accept the idea that the impasse is separate from the larger Cold War struggle.
- Negotiations for American prisoners in North Korea are held hostage to events in Vietnam.
- America fears sending “signs of weakness.”
The Public Response
- America’s military and its citizens demand retaliation.
- A Gallup poll shows those choosing force outnumber those choosing diplomacy by almost two to one.
- Newspapers run profiles of brave sailors captured by evil communists.
- Congressman L. Mendel Rivers, chair of the House Armed Services Committee cries:
“There can be only one answer for America — retaliation, retaliation, retaliation!”
- Options are hindered by strong North Korean defenses in the Wonsan area, the risk of conflict with the Soviets or Chinese, and concerns for the safety of the Pueblo crewmen.
- Demands of fighting the war in Vietnam preclude opening another front in East Asia.
- Under Secretary of State Nicholas Katzenback argues, “one war is enough.”
Remember the Pueblo
- American interest dims with the onset of the Tet Offensive on January 30, 1968.
- Supporters of the crew form a national “Remember the Pueblo Committee,” but to no avail. The public’s eye remains fixed on the war in Vietnam.
- By 1967, South Korea is providing tens of thousands of combat troops in Vietnam.
- In light of the incident’s increasing tensions, South Korea’s president, Park Chung Hee, hints that he may begin withdrawing troops from Vietnam to face growing North Korean aggression.
- Johnson pushes through an enormous military assistance package to keep the South Koreans in Vietnam.
The End Game
- Eighty-two American hostages are released alive. They are flown to San Diego, landing on Christmas Eve 1968.
- The Pueblo remains in North Korea. It is now one of the country’s leading tourist attractions.
Want to learn more? Read Mitchell B. Lerner’s book: The Pueblo Incident: A Spy Ship and the Failure of American Foreign Policy.”
Photograph by David Stanley (Flickr). The spy ship USS Pueblo, captured in 1968, is now a museum in Pyongyang, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.