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NORTH KOREA - Suspicious Minds, January 2003

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Spy Ships and Infiltrators

North Korean and U.N. command team representatives

Representatives for North Korea and the U.N. command team meet in the demilitarized border zone to negotiate the release of the USS Pueblo's crew. The crew was held hostage by the North Koreans for 11 months. (National Archives and Records Administration; U.S. Navy)
The 15 years following the truce that ended the Korean War were marked by deep tensions. The armistice agreement, signed by North Korea and China on the communist side and South Korea and United Nations forces on the other side, never evolved into a formal peace treaty. The armistice was repeatedly broken, with both sides attempting infiltration and plotting coups.

On January 23, 1968, a United Nations command team called for a meeting in the DMZ with South Korean and North Korean officials. The meeting was intended to diffuse tensions caused by an infiltration attempt on the part of the North Koreans the previous day in Seoul. (Thirty-one agents were believed to be planning an attack on the presidential palace.)

But instead, the U.N. team was diverted to a surprising new crisis on the peninsula. Four North Korean patrol boats had surrounded the 906-ton USS Pueblo off the eastern coast of North Korea. The Pueblo was part of Operation Clickbeetle, the code name for electronic and radio intelligence-gathering by small noncombatant naval ships off the coast of North Korea. The ship had been deployed to the coast of North Korea, where the crew was supposed to gather intelligence without interference. It was supposed to remain in international waters beyond the 12-mile limit claimed by North Korea.

Crewmen of the captured USS Pueblo

Crewmen of the captured USS Pueblo leave a U.S. Army bus at the United Nations Advance Camp, following their release by the North Koreans, December 23, 1968. (National Archives and Records Administration; U.S. Navy)

After several warnings to the spy ship, North Koreans took positions on the fleeing vessel's bow, beam and quarter. As the North Koreans closed in, 83 Americans aboard raced to destroy classified documents and electronic devices. A member of the crew radioed that the Pueblo had come to a stop and her radio was going off air. Under North Korea's order, the ship pulled into the port of Wonsan.

Pentagon officials scrambled to come to grips with what had happened. A U.S. ship hadn't been captured by an enemy state since the Napoleonic wars more than 150 years before.

Ever since the day the ship was captured, U.S. and North Korean officials have differed fiercely over the USS Pueblo's position when it was captured. The United States has maintained that the ship was in international waters; the North Koreans insist that the Americans had illegally entered their territory.

The standoff over the facts didn't help the cause of the Pueblo's 82 surviving crewmembers. They were held in captivity in North Korea for 11 months. (One crewmember was killed when the North Koreans ambushed the ship.) They were finally released when U.S. Army Major General Gilbert Woodward, who represented the United Nations command team as chief negotiator to free the crewmembers, signed a document confessing to espionage.

Families of the USS Pueblo crew await their loved ones’ arrival

Families of the USS Pueblo crew await their loved ones' arrival at Naval Air Station Miramar, California, December 24, 1968. (National Archives and Records Administration; U.S. Navy)

The document Woodward signed said, in part, that "the government of the United States of America ... shoulders full responsibility and solemnly apologizes for the grave acts of espionage committed by the U.S. ship against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea after having intruded into the territorial waters of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and gives firm assurance that no U.S. ships will intrude again."

But Woodward disavowed the confession even as he delivered it: "The position of the U.S. government with regard to the Pueblo has been that the ship was not engaged in illegal activity ... The document which I am going to sign was prepared by the North Koreans and is at variance with the above position. My signature will not and cannot alter the facts. I will sign the documents to free the crew and only to free the crew."

In Washington, the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson also quickly repudiated any guilt in the incident. But Johnson never pursued retaliation against North Korea. He was committed to escalating the U.S. response in Vietnam, where more than a half-million American soldiers now served.

Still, after the USS Pueblo debacle, the United States ditched such eavesdropping missions.

2002: Nukes and the "Axis of Evil"
1994: Diplomacy With Pyongyang
1991: End of a Superpower
1976: An Axe Fight Nearly Triggers War
• 1968: Spy Ships and Infiltrators
1948: From Independence to War

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