Fifty-five years ago this month, on Jan. 23, 1968, an international incident involving a U.S. Navy warship occurred on the high seas off the coast of North Korea. The incident remains a black mark on the Navy’s proud history.
The signals intelligence ship USS Pueblo (AGER-2) was operating in international waters when she was subjected to an unprovoked attack by several North Korean gunboats, torpedo boats and MIG-21 fighters.
The U.S. should not have been surprised by this move. Recognizing America’s focus was on fighting the Vietnam War, North Korea had become increasingly bolder, undertaking several acts of aggression against U.S. forces on the Korean peninsula.
Lacking an escort vessel and minimally armed, Pueblo was unable to defend herself, forcing the ship to surrender. But, while the seizure was humiliating enough, three decades later the ship would be dealt yet another humiliation – this time at the hands of our own government.
Now 78 years old and long ago eclipsed by advances in naval technology that make her obsolete today, Pueblo still remains on the Navy’s active duty rolls – the second-oldest ship in its inventory, right behind the 226-year-old, Revolutionary War-era USS Constitution.
Ironically, while the Constitution now serves as a museum, docked in Boston Harbor, Pueblo serves as a museum as well. However, she does so without the Navy’s consent and at a location more than 6,700 miles distant from where the Constitution is docked. Pueblo is tied to a pier in the Taedong River in Pyongyang, North Korea. And, as long as she remains there, she will never be removed from the Navy’s active service rolls.
After Pueblo’s capture in 1968, during which one U.S. crewmember was killed, the remaining 82 were incarcerated and subjected to torture. It took 11 months for their release to be affected. However, the Pueblo was not part of the release agreement, still remaining in North Korean hands today.
Immediately after Pueblo’s capture, she had been taken to the closest North Korean port, Wonsan, on the country’s east coast. She remained there for over three decades. But in the late 1990s, in the waning days of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, saw an opportunity to relocate the ship to Pyongyang where he could proudly display it as a prize trophy to his people.
At the time, the Clinton administration was eager to conclude a deal with North Korea concerning the rogue nation’s effort to develop a nuclear arsenal capable of producing nuclear weapons grade plutonium. Recognizing how eager the Americans were for a deal, Kim agreed to stop work on the reactor in exchange for the U.S. and European nations providing him with a new light water reactor, along with 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil annually.
The North Koreans well understood how to play U.S. administrations, which, historically, have preferred negotiation and appeasement to engaging in hardball with Pyongyang. And, since the transit of the Pueblo to Pyongyang involved a voyage of more than 1,000 miles through international waters, Kim demanded and received a pledge from Clinton not to interfere with the transit. Clinton issued a “hands off” order to his senior naval commanders, granting the North Koreans safe passage.
There could have been no greater humiliation for the Navy to suffer. It was simply forced to watch with hands tied as a ship, captured at the cost of American blood, brazenly set sail through international waters.
An interesting observation about the Pueblo is detectible today, although not visible to all due to the way the ship is tied to the pier. Visitors board the ship from its well-maintained port side. However, only observable from the opposite riverbank is the vessel’s deteriorating and rusting starboard side. While not intended as such, the two faces of Pueblo are symbolic of the two-faces of Kim in negotiating the win of Pueblo ‘s relocation with no intention of ever honoring the nuclear deal Clinton so badly sought.
Kim was a student of history, enabling him to appreciate what could be extracted during negotiations from an American president lacking a similar appreciation for North Korean negotiating tactics. An empowered Kim trumped Clinton, leaving us with an historical wound yet to heal.
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