What the USS Pueblo teaches us 50 years after its capture

Matt Saintsing
January 23, 2018 - 2:17 pm
Pueblo Crew

Photo by PHC V.O. McColley, USN. Official U.S. Navy Photograph

Just one U.S. Navy ship has ever been held captive by a foreign power, and today, remains a North Korean tourist attraction and point of national pride for the Hermit Kingdom.

North Korea attacked and seized the USS Pueblo, a U.S. spy vessel that had limited arms, on Jan. 23, 1968. It was operating in international waters off the coast of the Korean peninsula. One American sailor was killed in the attack, and the 82 others were imprisoned and tortured for nearly a full year.

Today’s 50th anniversary is a stark reminder that tensions between the United States and North Korea have been tense for quite some time; long before President Donald Trump hurled “little rocket man” at Kim Jong-un’s feet.

Immediately after the ship’s capture, the U.S. Navy demanded the crew be returned and that North Korea formally apologize. Pyongyang, in turn, insisted the USS Pueblo was operating in North Korean waters and demanded the U.S. apologize in a signed document.

Washington initially laughed at the idea, but eventually followed suit in December 1968.

The scene was prime for a break-out conflict that thankfully never came. In the months preceding the agreement, the U.S. built up defenses in South Korea, and deployed multiple aircraft carriers—all while it was engaged in the war in Vietnam. North Korea’s prime friend and ally, The Soviet Union, deployed warships into the Sea of Japan.

Despite multiple calls for a military strike, President Lyndon Baines Johnson held off while diplomats worked tirelessly behind the scenes to negotiate a deal for the crew to be freed.

Johnson perhaps wasn’t interested in starting a second war in Asia while being preoccupied with Vietnam, but his patience and thoughtful calculation meant the crew would eventually come home without further bloodshed.

Would Donald Trump be as patient and attentive as Johnson was at this moment if provoked similarly by North Korea today? Or would diplomats be allowed to work behind the scenes, as they often do, in the best interests of American citizens captured abroad?

Would they be undermined by twitter foreign policy or off-the-cuff comments?

The crew was starved, violently interrogated, and subject to psychological torture by their North Korean captors.

Today, the ship remains the only commissioned U.S. Navy ship to remain in the hands of a foreign government.

If the capture of the USS Pueblo teaches us anything, it’s that the Kim regime, currently in its third generation of violent rule, doesn’t follow agreed upon international norms. But, in the end, they were able to be reasoned with without ratcheting up bellicose rhetoric and elevating military options.

Military operations can go horribly wrong, and can even bring our country to the brink of war. We owe it to those who place their lives on the line every day to take every possible step to avoid such developments.