USS Pueblo (AGER 2)

United States Navy photograph


Docked in Pyongyang, North Korea

Giving a tour of an "armed spy ship of the U.S. imperialist aggression forces."

A recent photo of the captain of the North Korean ship that captured the Pueblo on 23 January 1968

This is a Google-Earth satellite image of the U.S.S. Pueblo docked in Pyongyang

Remember the Pueblo

NY Times, July 19, 2005


PYONGYANG, North Korea

Moored on a river here in the North Korean capital is the U.S.S. Pueblo, described as an "armed spy ship of the U.S. imperialist aggression forces."

The Pueblo is the Navy ship that North Korea seized in 1968 in waters off the country's east coast, setting off an international crisis. One American sailor was killed and 82 others were imprisoned for nearly a year and tortured into writing confessions. To signal that the confessions were forced, the sailors listed accomplices like the television character Maxwell Smart.

When forced to pose for a photo, some crew members extended their middle fingers to the camera, explaining to the North Korean photographer that this was a Hawaiian good luck sign. After the photo was published and the North Korean guards realized they'd been had, the sailors suffered a week of particularly brutal torture.

As the first Navy vessel to surrender in peacetime since 1807, the Pueblo was a humiliation for America. And it has become a propaganda trophy for North Korea, with ordinary Koreans paraded through in organized tours to fire up nationalist support for the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il.

Then Mr. Kim decided the propaganda would be even better if the ship was moved from the east coast to the capital. So the Korean Navy disguised the Pueblo as a freighter, ran up the North Korean flag and sailed it for nine days through international waters around South Korea to the west coast of North Korea, and then up a river to Pyongyang. In 1999, the Pueblo opened triumphantly to crowds in Pyongyang.

"When this ship left Wonsan port [on the east coast], Japanese ships mobilized to check it," said Col. Kim Jung Rok, who as a 28-year-old sailor helped storm the Pueblo and is now in charge of it. "But then they saw it was an ordinary freighter and withdrew."

It's a bad sign that the Western intelligence experts who monitor North Korean ports and examine satellite images didn't notice that the Pueblo had moved. President Bush's refusal to engage North Korea, as the Clinton administration had done, has already led the North to revive plutonium production. Mr. Bush's backup plan is to stop North Korean nuclear proliferation by intercepting nuclear materials as they leave the country - but that's wishful thinking. If we couldn't detect the transfer of a famous 176-foot ship, it's ludicrous to think we could stop the smuggling of a grapefruit-size chunk of plutonium.

The Pueblo is also a reminder that Kim Jong Il is unrelenting in promoting nationalism - and hostility to the West - to keep himself in power. That prickly Korean nationalism - think of the French, cubed - offers the only shred of legitimacy the Dear Leader has. Many tens of thousands of ethnic Koreans in Japan support North Korea, not because they are Communists but because they are patriots - they see the Dear Leader as an authentic Korean nationalist, in contrast with the American quislings in the South.

The biggest mistake America has made since World War II has been to misunderstand nationalism. That myopia now bolsters Kim Jong Il. When Bush administration officials rattle sabers at North Korea, they're helping to keep Kim Jong Il in power.

Since the War of 1812, only two nations, Russia and China, have posed a major military threat to our home turf. Now North Korea, with its nuclear weapons and three-stage Taepodong missiles, is apparently joining that list, and emerging as a potential global eBay for anyone seeking plutonium. And our plans to deal with that problem by intercepting shipments are as loony as North Korea itself.

But the story of the Pueblo's capture also offers a hint of how to proceed. Initially, many Americans favored a hard line. The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, for example, urged dropping a nuclear bomb on one North Korean city.

President Lyndon Johnson resisted, noting that bombing North Korea would not bring our hostages home. So the U.S. tried full-bore diplomacy. It was frustrating, slow and not wholly successful, but in the end was the best of a bunch of bad alternatives.

It's time for us to learn from the Pueblo again. The Bush administration's dismissal of serious, direct diplomacy has made Korea more dangerous. Engagement may be arduous, frustrating and often unsatisfying, but it's the only option we have left.

USS Pueblo, an 850-ton environmental research ship, was built at Kewaunee, Wisconsin, in 1944 as the the U.S. Army cargo ship FP-344. She was transferred to the Navy in April 1966 and renamed Pueblo. Initially designated a light cargo ship (AKL-44), she soon began conversion to a research ship and was redesignated AGER-2 shortly before commissioning in May 1967. Following training operations off the U.S. west coast, in November 1967 Pueblo departed for the Far East to undertake electronic intelligence collection and other duties.

The Pueblo, a tiny World War II-vintage supply ship newly reconditioned for spy service, sailed out of its home port of Yokosuka, Japan, on Jan. 5, 1968. After a brief stop at Sasebo Naval Base, Japan, the ship braved frigid temperatures and stormy seas for its maiden mission in the Sea of Japan, in international water about 15 miles off the coast of North Korea.

The USS Pueblo was part of Operation Clickbeetle, the code-name for electronic and radio intelligence gathering by small non-combatant naval ships that operated close to potential enemies. The USS Pueblo had been tasked to collect signals intelligence in the Sea of Japan using the “cover” of conducting hydrographic research.

Shortly after the operation got under way, the North Korean navy reacted with surprise and precision. On 23 January 1968, while off Wonsan, North Korea, Pueblo was attacked by local forces and seized. Four North Korean torpedo boats circled the Pueblo and ordered it to follow them into port. Commander Lloyd "Pete" Bucher, the Pueblo's commanding officer tried to steer the ship farther out to sea, but the North Koreans opened fire, killing one crew member.

Commander Bucher, armed only with a few .50-caliber machine guns aboard his slow vessel, surrendered the Pueblo after stalling his pursuers for sixty-five minutes. Inadequate destruction equipment and too much unnecessary classified material on board led to an intelligence coup for North Korea.

The defensive cover that was to have been provided by the Navy and the Air Force in response to calls from the Pueblo never came. The Navy and the Johnson administration missed all the indications and warnings that such a fate could befall the Pueblo, even after recognizing that the Pyongyang regime had violated the demilitarized zone more than fifty times, ambushed U.S and allied ground forces, attempted to assassinate the president of the Republic of Korea (with a secondary target to be the American embassy), and in the preceding nine months seized twenty South Korean fishing vessels for "entering North Korean territorial waters."

The other eighty-two men on board were taken prisoner. The North Koreans contended that the ship had violated their territorial waters, a claim vigorously denied by the United States. After eleven months in captivity, often under inhumane conditions, Pueblo's crew were repatriated on 23 December 1968. The ship was retained by North Korea, though she is still the property of the U.S. Navy. She was exhibited at Wonsan and Hungham for three decades and before becoming a museum in the Taedong River near Ssuk Islet at Pyongyang, the North Korean capital city. The location had been the site where the American trading ship, the General Sherman, has been set on fire by the local population in 1866.

The vessel was moved in October 1999 to Nampo just before the vist of US presidential evnoy James Kelly to the capital.

 Harold Bowen, the Admiral who led the inquiry of the Pueblo incident died on 17 August 2000. Go Here to read his obituary.

Go to: Home Page

Go to: Digital Photo Page

Go to: Korean Picture Page

Go to: History of Medal of Honor

Go to: Obituaries

Go to:Vietnam Medal of Honor Citations