Remembering the Pueblo: How Internal Imperatives Shape North Korean Decisions
38 North is pleased to launch a new collection of short essays that will examine the historical context of key episodes, forces and choices in North Korean history. These essays, written by leading experts in modern Korean history and curated by USKI Research Director Dr. James Person, are meant to extract lessons from the past to increase our understanding of the DPRK today.
The first in this series covers North Korea’s capture of the USS Pueblo, and how domestic factors fed into the North’s calculations on this provocative act. Future articles will examine such topics as the origins of North Korea’s military adventurism toward the United States in the late 1960s, Pyongyang’s policies toward sporting events hosted by South Korea, and more. Whether you’re a Korea expert or just casual observer of the current events unfolding, there is always more to learn about what drives a nation’s decisions. We invite you to check back often for more historical analysis about the DPRK.
On the morning of January 23, 1968––fifty years ago today––the USS Pueblo was operating peacefully in the East Sea (Sea of Japan) when a call from the bridge reached Captain Pete Bucher in the mess hall. The Pueblo was an antiquated former cargo carrier that had been pulled out of retirement by Naval Intelligence and the National Security Agency a few years earlier and converted into a top-secret electronic intelligence collection vessel as part of Operation Clickbeetle. The ship and its 83 men were now off the coast of North Korea, proudly conducting their first mission. It had been a fairly mundane trip through the first two uneventful weeks, but the bridge was now calling Bucher to warn of a new development: a North Korean ship had been spotted and was moving directly towards them at top speed. As Bucher raced to the bridge, the voice of Chief Warrant Officer Gene Lacy filled the room. “Maybe,” he joked, “this won’t be another dull day after all.” In fact, January 23 would prove to be the last dull day for the Pueblo men for a long time.
Just as Bucher reached the bridge, a North Korean SO-1 subchaser arrived, followed rapidly by three P-4 torpedo boats, and then two Soviet-built MIGs. The ships surrounded the Pueblo and the lead subchaser rang up signal flags: “HEAVE TO OR I WILL OPEN FIRE.” Confident of his ship’s safety in international waters, Bucher refused to be intimidated. “I AM IN INTERNATIONAL WATERS,” the Pueblo’s flags replied. “INTEND TO REMAIN IN THE AREA UNTIL TOMORROW.”
After some jockeying for position, the North Korean captain radioed into Pyongyang: “According to present instructions, we will close down the radio, tie up the personnel, tow it, and enter port at Wonsan. At present, we are on our way to boarding.” Within minutes, one of the torpedo boats approached the Pueblo, with a dozen armed DPRK soldiers preparing to board. The American ship’s unreliable engines kicked into life moments before the North Koreans were close enough to strike, and the ship fled towards the open sea. Pulling away, Bucher raised a new flag: “THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION,” he signaled. “AM DEPARTING THE AREA.”
The escape attempt, however, was doomed from the start. The Pueblo was no match for its pursuers, who quickly chased down the dilapidated American ship and opened fire, wreaking destruction across the vessel. With his ship badly outclassed and outgunned, Bucher stalled for time, hoping for the arrival of reinforcements, or least to gain additional time to destroy the ship’s top-secret equipment. It soon became clear, however, that no help was coming. The decrepit Pueblo was on its own, surrounded by enemy forces off the coast of North Korea. With his ship in tatters and chaos all around him, Bucher soon made the fateful choice to surrender, with one man dead and numerous others wounded. At 2:33, the Pueblo sent its final message to the Navy: “FOUR MEN INJURED AND ONE CRITICALLY AND GOING OFF THE AIR NOW AND DESTROYING THIS GEAR.”
Quickly, North Korean soldiers boarded the Pueblo and imprisoned the men in the forward berthing compartment. The ship was towed into North Korea, where it remains today as a popular tourist attraction. The 82 survivors were dragged to the shore and held for a year of beating, torture and public humiliation. Negotiations for their release began shortly after the capture but dragged on for months. A resolution was found just before Christmas, one that released the men only after the Johnson administration signed a letter prepared by the DPRK that admitted that the Pueblo had intruded into its waters, apologized for doing so, and assured the North it would not happen again. The US, however, was allowed to publicly renounce the statement before signing as part of the deal.
“The position of the United States government with regard to the Pueblo,” announced Major General Gilbert Woodward at the signing ceremony, “as consistently expressed in the negotiations at Panmunjom and in public, has been that the ship was not engaged in any illegal activity, that there is no convincing evidence that the ship at any time intruded into the territorial waters claimed by North Korea, and that we could not apologize for actions which we did not believe took place. The document which I am going to sign was prepared by the North Koreans and is at variance with the above position, but my signature will not and cannot alter the facts. I will sign the document to free the crew and only to free the crew.” Shortly thereafter, 82 very relieved American sailors crossed the Bridge of No Return.
The tragic details of the Pueblo Incident are certainly important on their own merits, but they can also provide a useful window into North Korea in the late 1960s and perhaps even lessons for today, especially in the wake of the release of archival materials from the former communist-bloc states during this period. The most immediate conclusion that we can now draw about the incident is the fact that, despite what most Americans instinctively believed, the North Koreans had acted alone. The night after the Pueblo seizure, the DPRK actually had to call a meeting of allied ambassadors assigned to Pyongyang and brief them on the events. The attack, the DPRK’s Deputy Foreign Minister noted, was one “of which you might already have read in the newspapers.”
Pyongyang’s refusal to communicate with its allies regarding the Pueblo generally continued throughout the length of the crisis, frustrating many communist officials assigned to the country. Reports from allied officials in Pyongyang frequently spoke about the situation on the Peninsula but often admitted that they could not really explain the North’s strategies or intentions with any certainty because of their lack of access to information. While it is a bit of an exaggeration, one might even say that 1968 North Korea was almost as opaque to its allies as it was to its enemies.
Beyond resolving the immediate question of culpability, the newer materials also demonstrate the extent to which the Pueblo capture exacerbated tensions within the larger communist bloc. Such tensions pre-dated the capture of the ship, as the late 1960s were a time of some discord for inner-bloc relations with Pyongyang. Sino-Korean relations were at their nadir. The Chinese Cultural Revolution had scared Kim, who described the turmoil as “incredible madness,” and “mass lunacy,” and insisted that it violated true Marxist-Leninist principles. More fundamentally, Kim seems to have worried about the Chinese situation along two fronts: that the political chaos might set off internal challenges to his own regime or, more likely, that the Chinese might try to export their radical vision across the Yalu River. He was also troubled by Chinese policies towards the Vietnam War and other revolutionary fronts, and resentful of the lack of aid they provided to his and other countries. Kim believed, according to Soviet officials, that the “Chinese ruling group was hiding behind high-sounding phrases about the battle against imperialism,” but wa, in reality, doing little to help.
By 1967, tensions between the two nations were overt and plentiful, leading to the cancellation of most cultural and economic exchanges, vitriolic propaganda and media attacks, and even a series of border clashes. Kim’s relations with the Moscow were better but still somewhat problematic. Soviet officials happily stepped into the void left by the declining Chinese influence, but resented Kim’s reluctance to support them publicly and his refusal to share information. They also grumbled about many aspects of DPRK policymaking that they could not control, ranging from Kim’s focus on the Third World at the expense of the bloc and his absolute rigidity regarding interaction with South Korea. Other nations grumbled as well, for many of the same reasons.
The Pueblo capture helped bring these tensions to their peak. Kim’s reluctance to inform his allies about developments over the course of the negotiations was certainly a major issue, but it was not the only one. Many communist bloc officials, especially the Soviets,
questioned the strategic wisdom behind Kim’s decision, lamenting the North’s willingness to risk provoking another conflict in Asia while the Vietnam War raged and criticizing the fact that he had provided the United States with an excuse to strengthen its forces in the area. Others noted that his actions had offered a justification for the Park Chung-hee government (in South Korea) to crack down on domestic opposition.
Above all else, the communist states wanted the North to resolve the crisis as soon as possible. In April 1968, Party General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev blasted North Korea in a lengthy speech. “The measures taken in this case by the government of the DPRK appear unusually harsh,” he declared. “We insistently advised the Korean comrades…to show reserve, not to give the Americans an excuse for widening provocations, to settle the incident by political means…But the Korean comrades maintained [a] fairly extreme position and did not show any inclination towards the settlement of the incident.” Still, the North ignored the message and refused to bend in negotiations. Moscow was “showing impatience in regard to this question,” wrote the Czech embassy in Pyongyang in June. “All friends realize that that the DPRK’s handling of the Pueblo affair has been reverberating against the DPRK’s own interest.” Still, the North held firm in its demands until the United States relented, and in doing so, clearly demonstrated the extent to which the communist bloc, especially when it came to North Korea, was never the unified group that American policymakers often believed.
These Pueblo-related materials also open a window into the domestic problems plaguing North Korea at the time. The attack, it appears, was motivated at least in part by Kim’s desire to rally the people against an external threat, as a way of distracting them from economic troubles at home. After the Korean War, the North had actually developed more rapidly than the South. Economic statistics are, of course, unreliable when it comes to North Korea, but by all accounts, the 1957 Five Year Plan had sparked relatively strong economic growth. The prosperity, however, would not last. In 1966, the Seven-Year Plan was extended to ten years to meet its targets, and still objectives went unrealized in many important areas. By the late 1960s, North Korea, especially in comparison to its Southern rival, had reached arguably its lowest point since the Korean War. Power shortages were a significant problem, one that led to the closing of many industrial plants. The nation that celebrated its economic independence was now awash in foreign goods; even the Pueblo crewmen, largely isolated from society, noticed among other things, Sony tape recorders, Nikon cameras, RCA televisions, Plymouth automobiles, Zeiss movie projectors, Czechoslovakian buses, Japanese watches and Bic pens. Agriculture suffered from a lack of tractors and other related technology, as well as a manpower shortage that reflected Kim’s focus on heavy industry and military development.
Moreover, a general disillusionment and demoralization had fallen over the country, one that appears to have been at the heart of a series of purges Kim launched against a number of officials. Accordingly, Kim seems to have latched onto the Pueblo as a means of rallying the people behind him during this difficult time. “The spreading military psychosis had other functions,” noted Czech officials in North Korea a few weeks after the Pueblo capture, “like distracting people from the existing economic difficulties, ‘justifying’ stagnation of the standard of living, demanding the strictest discipline and obedience, and preventing any criticism.”
As American policymakers have struggled with North Korea over the last decade, many have fallen back on simplistic portrayals of the nation that minimize the role of indigenous imperatives. The North, we hear over and over from policymakers and pundits, could easily be brought under control by China, who is the dominant master hand behind Pyongyang. Others voices dismiss the country and its regime as simply crazy and incomprehensible. Few voices consider the possibility that North Korea might be driven by internal imperatives, rooted in changing economic or political circumstances and national ideology. For a reminder of how indigenous forces can shape DPRK behavior, contemporary policymakers could do worse than turn the clock back to 1968 and “Remember the Pueblo.”
This depiction of the Pueblo seizure is based on Mitchell Lerner, The Pueblo Incident (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), chapter 4.
Reprinted in Boston Globe, December 23, 1968, p. 19.
The “Bridge of No Return” is the bridge located inside the Joint Security Area that spans the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) between North and South Korea. It was historically used for prisoner exchanges at the end of the Korean War, and again for the return of the crew of the USS Pueblo in 1968.
“Memorandum of the Foreign Ministry of the DPRK for the Ambassadors and Acting Ambassadors of all Socialist Countries accredited to the DPRK,” January 24, 1968, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, MfAA C 1023/73. Translated for NKIDP by Karen Riechert, http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/113715.
See, for example, “On Current Relations between the DPRK and the PR China,” GDR Embassy to DPRK, March 3, 1968, reprinted in Crisis and Confrontation on the Korean Peninsula, 1968-69, NKIDP History and Public Policy Program, Critical Oral History Conference Series, document #21.
“The DPRK Attitude Toward the So-called ‘Cultural Revolution’ in China,” March 07, 1967, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, AVPRF f. 0102, op. 23, p. 112, d. 24, pp. 13-23, obtained by Sergey Radchenko and translated by Gary Goldberg, http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/114570; “Note on a Conversation with the First Secretary of the Soviet Embassy, Comrade Zvetkov on March 15, 1967,” GDR Embassy in Pyongyang, in James Person (ed.), North Korea International Documentation Project Document Reader #2, “Limits of the ‘Lips and Teeth’ Alliance: New Evidence on Sino-DPRK Relations, 1955-1984,” document # 12, p. 38.
“Memorandum on Sino-Korean Relations,” December 2, 1966, First Secretary of the Soviet Embassy in the DPRK, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, AVPRF, f. 0102, op.22, p. 109, d.22, pp. 38-49, on-line at: http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/114591.pdf?v=c473a85f5b494eb6f44b007e30bf0452.
See, for example, “Report, Embassy of Hungary in the Soviet Union to the Hungarian Foreign Ministry,” November 25, 1967, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, MOL, XIX-J-1-j Korea, 1967, 61. doboz, 5, 002126/3/1967, on-line at: http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/110624.
Excerpt from Leonid Brezhnev’s Speech at the April (1968) CC CPSU Plenum, “On the Current Problems of the International Situation and on the Struggle of the CPSU for the Unity of the International Communist Movement”,” April 09, 1968, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Russian State Archive of Recent History (RGANI), fond 2, opis 3, delo 95, listy 50-58, on-line at: http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/110507.
“Memorandum from Czech Ambassador Holub in Pyongyang to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” April 06, 1968, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, SM-023846/68. Translated by Vojtech Mastny. http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/113195
“Information about the Situation in Korea,” February 04, 1968, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Czech Foreign Ministry Archives. Translated by Adolf Kotlik, http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/114572.