How North Korea Captured a U.S. Spy Ship in 1968 and Kept It Ever Since
At the height of the Cold War in 1968, something happened the U.S. never expected: North Korea captured its spy ship, the USS Pueblo, along with 83 of its crew. The “Pueblo Incident” became known as one of the major incidents of the Cold War.
On January 23, 1968, the USS Pueblo was moored off the coast of the Korean Peninsula when it was attacked and captured by North Korean patrol boats, who claimed the ship was intruding in their country’s territorial waters. The U.S., however, insisted that the ship was in international waters when the incident took place.
The Pueblo Incident Exposed North Korea as Volatile and Aggressive
Although the attack on the USS Pueblo came three days after 31 members from North Korea’s army had crossed the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and killed 26 South Koreans in an attempt to attack the South Korean Blue House (executive mansion) in the capital Seoul, it would be the Pueblo Incident that would open the eyes of the world to the nature of North Korea as a pariah state, resulting in its alienation among Third World countries and the West.
According to Benjamin R. Young, assistant professor in Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness at Virginia Commonwealth University, the Pueblo Incident was a reckless move on the part of North Korea.
“By exposing the DPRK government as a volatile and aggressive actor on the global stage, the brazen seizure of the Pueblo ended up harming Pyongyang’s reputation in the Third World and did little to increase international sympathy for Kim Il Sung’s regime,” Young writes.
U.S. Responded with a Show of Force
Two days after the capture of the Pueblo, the U.S. sent its Naval Task Force 71, assigning the USS Enterprise as the lead ship. The Enterprise, at the time, was the most powerful warship and nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in the world. It can carry over 80 fighter jets.
It was composed of ships from the U.S. Seventh Fleet, the largest forward-deployed naval assets of the U.S. in the world. The purpose of the buildup was to provide a measured show of force alongside diplomatic efforts to free the captured crew of the Pueblo.
Third World Countries Distanced From North Korea
According to Young, after the Pueblo Incident, many Third World countries started to have a negative view of North Korea and its Supreme Leader Kim Il Sung. They viewed as unacceptable the attack on the USS Pueblo and the capture of its crew, one of whom was killed.
But it would also be the Third World countries that would push for a deal between North Korea and the U.S., fearing the incident could lead to a second Korean War.
U.S. Admitted Intrusion Into North Korea
According to Young, North Korea eventually released the prisoners, but it came with a very heavy cost for the United States: They admitted “intrusion.”
“Although the US government maintained that the Pueblo never entered the DPRK’s territorial boundaries and only admitted to an intrusion as a way to secure the crew’s release, North Korea’s state-run media depicted this confession as a victory for small countries over imperialism,” wrote Young.
According to Britannica, the U.S. initiated negotiations that resulted in an agreement that secured the release of the crew.
“The agreement allowed the United States to publicly disavow the confession the crew had signed, admitting the ship’s intrusion, apologizing, pledging to cease all future action, and acknowledging the truth of confessions obtained during captivity,” writes Britannica.
Although North Korea released all surviving crewmen of the USS Pueblo, it has kept the American spy ship as a trophy from that incident.
USS Pueblo Today
The USS Pueblo officially remains a commissioned vessel of the U.S. Navy. Its status is currently captured.
Since 2013, the ship has been moored on the Pothong River in Pyongyang where it serves as a museum ship at the Victorious War Museum.