On January 23, 1968, the USS Pueblo, a US Navy intelligence-gathering ship was on a routine surveillance mission in international waters off of the coast of North Korea.
While on surveillance duty, it was intercepted by North Korean patrol boats.
Shots were fired, the crew was captured, and it set off one of the biggest international incidents of the Cold War.
Learn more about the Pueblo incident, how and why it happened, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
One thing to understand which underlines this entire episode is that technically speaking, the Korean War never ended.
There was never a formal peace treaty that was put into place. There was only a cease-fire, which is still in effect today.
So as far as North Korea was concerned, they were at war. A war that started in 1950, but at least mentally, was still ongoing.
The ship which would become the USS Pueblo began its life in 1944 as a US Army freight and passenger ship. There were many such ships built during the war and when it was launched it didn’t even merit a name. It was just known as FP-344.
It was used as a training vessel manned by the Coast Guard in the last days of the war, and it was out of commission by 1954.
Fast forward to 1964.
The United States is in the middle of the Cold War.
The US Navy engaged in radio surveillance and had a small number of ships that were outfitted for this task. They would intercept radio signals from communist block countries and then decrypt the signals that they would intercept.
This was pretty standard practice for both sides during the cold war and it is something that is going on today. Radio waves are sent out into the ether and can be picked up by pretty much anyone.
However, to receive the signal, depending on the strength and frequency which is being used, you have to be in the right place. Hence, the need for ships that could be parked off the coast of a country to just listen to radio waves.
The Navy’s radio surveillance ships were rather big and bulky and they wanted smaller, cheaper, and more flexible ships.
As part of the solution, in 1966 they took FP-344 out of retirement and renamed it the Pueblo, after the City in Colorado.
The captain of the ship was assigned to Lloyd Bucher, who was involved with the renovation and retrofitting of the ship.
The navy put money into the ship, but they also skimped on some very important things that would become relevant later. They didn’t upgrade the engine, even though there were previous engine problems when the ship was recently taken out.
It was a spy ship, but the navy wouldn’t install higher-end incinerators to more quickly and efficiently burn classified materials. They had to use a burn barrel, which was much slower.
Likewise, a request for an emergency system to scuttle the ship so it couldn’t fall into enemy hands was also denied.
On top of that, there was no deck gun for the ship. When the ship arrived at the US Naval Base in Yokosuka, Japan, the captain installed two 50-caliber machine guns. However, the crew had basically no training with the guns, they were installed in such a way that they weren’t protected, and they had very little ammunition.
So basically, it was a very small ship, with very sensitive intelligence material, with poor capabilities to destroy that material if they needed to, not enough firepower, and engines incapable of running away.
With that, on January 11, 1968, the Pueblo set off from Sasebo, Japan on a joint Navy-National Security Agency assignment. Their mission was to sit in the Sea of Japan and listen for North Korean and Soviet radio signals.
The explicit instructions given to the ship were to come no closer than 13 nautical miles to shore.
Here I should note that it is almost universally agreed upon that international waters began at 12 nautical miles off of the coast of a country. This was the limit used throughout the Cold War. Soviet and American ships would go up to 12 nautical miles all the time because it was perfectly legal.
North Korea, however, claims its territorial waters out to 50 nautical miles.
The 13-mile rule was established by the navy just as a precaution so they wouldn’t risk sailing into territorial waters.
On January 16, the Pueblo reached the 42nd parallel where they would start their patrol. The basic mission was to move to 13-nautical miles offshore during the day and then move to about 18 to 20 nautical miles at night.
They were soon discovered. On January 20, they were identified by a North Korean sub-chaser.
On January 22, two North Korean fishing ships came within 30 meters of the Pueblo. What the Pueblo was unaware of was that very day, there was a North Korean assassination attempt on the South Korean president in Seoul.
On January 23, the Pueblo was again approached by another sub chase, but this time they challenged the nationality of the ship. The Pueblo raised the American flag and sent out civilians to take water samples, as their cover story was that they were a research vessel.
The North Koreans ordered the Pueblo to stand down and fired warning shots. Soon three more North Korean ships appeared on the horizon and two North Korean MIG fighter jets flew over the ship.
The Pueblo radioed to the Fleet Command to tell them what was happening. They actually promised to send air support, but nothing ever came.
All of the design problems I outlined with the Pueblo came home to roost at this point.
The crew tried to burn their classified material, but they couldn’t burn it fast enough. They were getting shot at, but they didn’t have the firepower to shoot back. They were being chased, but they didn’t have an engine good enough to outrun the North Korean vessels.
After two hours of trying to outmaneuver the North Korean ships, the Pueblo was finally boarded and the crew was captured. 83 crew members were made prisoners of war and 1 was killed.
This was a massive embarrassment for the United States and sparked a huge diplomatic incident.
Opinions on what should be done by members of Congress and the Johnson cabinet were all over the place. They ranged from a nuclear strike to a blockade of North Korea, to negotiations at the United Nations.
The crew was taken to prisoner of war camps where they claimed they were starved and tortured.
The North Koreans took photos of the prisoners, but the prisoners sent secret codes in the photos. All of the prisoners would have their middle fingers extended in the photos. They told the North Koreans that it was a Hawaiian sign for good luck. When they found out what it really meant, they were further punished.
The North Koreans demanded they sign confessions. They threatened to execute Captain Bucher’s crew in front of him, so he eventually relented and signed a confession. However, when he did, he put puns into his confession that the North Koreans didn’t understand.
For example, he wrote, “We paean the DPRK [North Korea]. We paean their great leader Kim Il Sung”.
He wrote pean spelled p-e-a-n, which means to sing praise. However, it is pronounced, pee-on.
Negotiations between the United States and North Korea took place in Panmunjom, which is in the Demilitarized Zone, and I’ve talked about it in a previous episode.
The talks were difficult because the North Koreans literally had a box of cards and every time the Americans brought up a point, they responded with what was written on one of the cards. If they brought something up that there wasn’t a card for, the North Koreans would stall and adjourn and come back with new cards that had a reply.
Eventually, after a public apology by the United States for spying, the prisoners were released on December 23, 11 months after the incident took place. The prisoner exchange took palace over the bridge of no return in the DMZ.
The Navy considered court marshaling Captain Bucher for giving up a ship without a fight, but decided not to because he had already been through enough, and a public court marshall of a prisoner of war would probably turn public opinion even further against the military, which was already having issues in the middle of the Vietnam war.
The crew may have been released, but the ship is still in the possession of North Korea. It is now a tourist attraction in Pyongyang.
The ship is still considered to be in commission by the US Navy, and it is the second oldest ship in commission after the USS Constitution, which is over 200 years old.
The return of the Pueblo is still a bargaining chip in talks between the two countries.
So, with 50 years of hindsight, what exactly happened?
For starters, as far as we know, the Soviets had nothing to do with it. By all accounts, they were just as surprised as the Americans were at the whole incident.
Second, by Captain Bucher’s own account after he was released, they didn’t have very good navigators on board the ship. It is possible they were in North Korean waters.
The biggest thing was that the Americans just didn’t anticipate any of this happening. They were used to spying on the Soviets, and the Soviets spied on the Americans. There was reciprocity involved. If the Soviets had captured an American ship, the Americans could do that to the Soviets.
That was why it never happened.
However, there was no reciprocity with the North Koreans. When the North Koreans captured a ship off their coast, the Americans couldn’t do the same in return.
To close, I should note that the survivors of the Pueblo Incident took the North Korean government to court in the United States for damages.
In 2021, a court awarded Pueblo survivors and their families $2.3 billion dollars.
To date, the North Korean government has not paid anything.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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Petar sent 1234 sats for my episode on the Ides of March. He asked, “??Why didn’t Cicero partake in the assassination of Julius Caesar?”
That’s a good question with a simple answer. He wasn’t asked. The conspirators only invited those senators who were their piers, which were men around the age of 40.
Cicero was in his 60s at that time and they didn’t invite anyone that old because they might slow things down, or might not have supported it.
After the fact, he was quoted as saying to the conspirators that he wished he was “invited to that superb banquet”.
I think I could do an entire episode on Cicero in the future, as in addition to his political legacy, he was one of the greatest orators and writers in the ancient world.
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Thanks, Dave. I think there are a lot of future episodes on this subject. Much of it is finding a way to look at the subject in a way that I can cover adequately on an episode of this podcast. It is a very big topic area that just needs to be paired down to manageable stories within the bigger picture.
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