If North Korea is celebrating one special day that has something to do with the United States, it must be January 23.
That’s because 50 years ago, it captured what has since become a tourist attraction at the Pothong River in Pyongyang: the USS Pueblo, a spy ship tasked to collect intelligence on the regime’s military.
The seizure, known today as the “Pueblo incident” or the “Pueblo crisis,” saw the capture of the ship’s 83 crew members, one of whom died in the process. The rest were imprisoned and tortured in prison camps for 11 months before the American government secured their release.
According to North Korea, the Pueblo entered its territorial waters 7.6 nautical miles (14 kilometers) from Ryo Island. It also claimed that the logbook documented intrusion for several times.
But the U.S. maintains that the ship never sailed beyond international waters. Hence, any “evidence” presented by Pyongyang must be fabricated.
Initially a World War II army freighter, the Pueblo became a spy ship in 1967 as part of Operation Clickbeetle — the Navy’s response to the Soviet Union’s intelligence vessels pretending to be fishing trawlers, Cleveland noted.
At the time extending to the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union had an unspoken gentlemen’s agreement: no interfering with each other’s spy ships. Washington assumed that Pyongyang played the same, but apparently, it did not.
However, the Pueblo — which barely had weapons — did not easily surrender even if it was approached by a North Korean submarine chaser. It attempted to get away but was no match for the shooting vessel, which was shortly joined by three other torpedo boats.
Ultimately, the Pueblo was captured. Worse, very little of its total classified material was destroyed.
The aftermath of the seizure was nothing short of tension. The fact that North Korean forces almost succeeded in assassinating South Korean President Park Chung Hee at the Blue House in Seoul a few days earlier only heightened the conflict.
Pyongyang demanded acknowledgement of the intrusion, an apology, and a promise from the U.S. that it will never commit such actions again — in writing. Washington scoffed as an initial response, but by the end of 1968, it had no choice but play by Pyongyang’s terms.
It was a moment of humiliation necessary to halt escalating tensions and free the Pueblo’s crew. Naenara, North Korea’s official web portal, wrote:
“In the face of the DPRK’s resolute stand and might, the US had no choice but to kneel down and recognize its crimes.”
If anything, the 50th anniversary of the Pueblo’s capture is a reminder of the U.S. and North Korea’s long-standing troubled relationship. The ship is the only vessel of the Navy that remains on the commissioned roster held captive.