Home » News & Analysis » North Korea Commemorates 50th Anniversary of USS Pueblo Seizure


North Korea Commemorates 50th Anniversary of USS Pueblo Seizure

Pueblo is shown at its new location at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang where it was moved in 2012

North Korea celebrated the 50th anniversary of the USS Pueblo (AGER-2) incident on Tuesday via broadcasts on state television and in an international press statement.

In 1968, the North Korean Navy captured the signals intelligence ship USS Pueblo (AGER-2) and its crew of 82 sailors. The sailors suffered starvation and torture and were used for propaganda purposes for almost a year before a release was negotiated in December of 1968.

Today, Pueblo is a prized museum for Pyongyang. It is the only U.S. commissioned ship currently held captive by a foreign government. The anniversary of its seizure was marked by celebrations and a special segment on North Korean television, showing the crew getting haircuts, writing letters, reading and living in accommodations that appear to be a stark contrast to where the crew actually was confined.

The following is the official announcement from the state-controlled Korean Central News Agency:

Pyongyang, January 21 (KCNA) — It is 50 years since the Navy of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) captured the U.S. imperialist armed spy ship Pueblo.

Pueblo is the direct product of the acts of aggression against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea committed by the U.S. imperialists from the mid-19 century and a trophy symbolic of the U.S. bitter defeat and the DPRK’s eternal victory in the anti-U.S. confrontation.

On Jan. 23, Juche 57 (1968) KPA seamen captured the ship, which intruded into the inviolable territorial waters of the DPRK, thus clearly showing to the world that we never pardon aggressors.

More than 2,190,000 service personnel, people of various strata and youth and students visited Pueblo, an exhibit showing to the whole world the crime of the U.S. imperialists.

In the United States, seizure of Pueblo was an unwelcome public relations and strategic nightmare, according to the investigation after the incident. During a Navy board of inquiry, it became apparent U.S. military forces were unable to offer assistance during the incident because they were dedicated to ongoing operations in Vietnam. Pueblo, a lightly armed spy ship, was left to fend for itself against heavier armed North Korean vessels and MiG fighter jets, as detailed by Naval History Magazine in 2014.

Following the release of Pueblo’s crew, a Navy investigation criticized Cmdr. Lloyd M. “Pete” Bucher, the ship’s commanding officer, for not taking a more aggressive stance when initially confronted by North Korean forces, for not adequately destroying surveillance equipment or classified documents, for allowing his ship to be boarded, and for surrendering without firing a shot.

Bucher, though, didn’t have any good options, retired Lt. F. Carl Shumacher wrote in the February issue of Naval History Magazine. Shumacher was a 24-year-old lieutenant on the bridge of Pueblo when the attack started, and his first-person account offers a harrowing look at what happened 50 years ago.

USS Pueblo at sea, 1967

“While the Pueblo did have two .50-caliber machine guns on board (a last-minute addition generated by the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty [AGTR-5] just six months earlier), the rapidly added gun mounts had no armor protection. Other weapons were limited—maybe eight .45-caliber sidearms and a couple of small Thompson machine guns. Enough to dispel normal boarders but not enough to resist the forces we were facing,” Shumacher wrote.
“With little firepower on board, our strategy was to stall for time—time for the might of the U.S. military to be brought to bear, time for our crew of 83 to complete emergency destruction, time for the North Koreans to realize the foolishness of their brazen attempt to seize a U.S. Navy warship on the high seas.”

While delaying for time, Pueblo sent messages to the U.S. fleet, asking for assistance, hoping the U.S. Navy would arrive.

“For the Pueblo, the silence from our shore-based commanders was deafening. Despite excellent online, fully encrypted, teletype-based resources and prepared reports from the Pueblo, no instructions were received,” Shumacher wrote. “The only navy trying to communicate with the Pueblo was North Korean.”

The same investigation criticizing Bucher’s decision making when surrounded by North Korean naval forces, though, commended his leadership during the crew’s 11-month detention. Bucher maintained a chain of command and repeatedly encouraged his crew to resist the North Koreans whenever they could. He staged a hunger strike to protest the crew’s treatment and pretended to not understand what North Korean interpreters were saying, according to the Navy investigation.

Shumacher said Bucher carefully crafted his required correspondence to be so full of jargon and Navy slang no one would believe the letters were anything more than North Korean-staged propaganda. This set the example of resistance for the crew to follow.

The captured crew of the USS Pueblo giving the “Hawaiian symbol for good luck,” 1968

Pueblo’s crew resisted when possible, most notably by frequently raising their middle fingers to ruin propaganda photo ops staged by the North Koreans, telling their captors the gesture was considered a “Hawaiian Good Luck Sign,” according to the Navy investigation. The crew was severely beaten near the end of their confinement when the North Koreans learned the gesture’s true meaning.

The Navy investigation recommended court-martial proceedings for Bucher, because of his actions before the seizure. Then-Navy Secretary John Chafee overruled this decision, though, stating, “it is my opinion that – even assuming that further proceedings were had, and even going so far as to assume that a judgment of guilt was to be reached – they have suffered enough and further punishment would not be justified.”

  • Facebook User

    If you’d like to know more about the USS Pueblo incident, read the book “Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo,” by Jack Cheevers. Winner of the Samuel Eliot Morison Award for Naval Literature.

    • Centaurus

      Also, Bucher: My story , by the Captain of the Pueblo, Lloyd Bucher

  • javier huela

    Someday that dictatorship will come to an end

    • Centaurus

      Not soon enough. Can someone speed-up the process ?

      • javier huela

        would have to kill kim … what happens?

        • Centaurus

          You would take his place, obviously 🙂

          • javier huela

            once I take the place of Kim, I would bring democracy and the dictatorship would end in North Korea….

          • Centaurus

            Then the US would overthrow you and install another puppet-dictatorship for which to justify its many foreign monkey businesses. 🙁

          • javier huela

            Then I would become an ally of the United States of America … and the devil with the Russians and the Chinese

          • javier huela

            it is currently the Russians and the Chinese who maintain the dictatorship in North Korea

          • TomD

            He’s a body double?

          • Centaurus

            No, he takes Kim’s severed head, scoops out the brains and bone, then wears the face as a meat-mask. Just a perk of the job. A’la Hannibal Lecter. Any questions ?

  • Pete Novick

    North Korea towed USS Pueblo into the harbor at Wonsan where the vessel was moored for many years.

    Later, the North Koreans were able to move the ship to the west coast of North Korea, in a move that went undetected by US and ROK military and intelligence services.

    After North Korea released propaganda photos of the vessel in its new berth, the ROK Navy CNO caught a lot of flack from the Korean political establishment, some of whom demanded his resignation.

    • kye154

      Yeah, it was a good test of both our intelligence and South Korea’s intelligence, which means, our intelligence isn’t as good as we think it is. It also means, the U.S. Navy was not very concerned about loosing that ship.

    • Chesapeakeguy

      It is reported that the US did not interfere with the movement of the Pueblo because the Clinton admin did not want to jeopardize negotiations with NK over their nuclear program. The ship was moved in 1999 from Wonsan to Pyongyang.

    • TomD

      “in a move that went undetected by US and ROK military and intelligence services.”
      Initially yes, but she was seen passing through Tsushima Strait.

  • John Byron

    Interesting backstory. Two of the most infamous ships during Vietnam days were PUEBLO and the USS VANCE (DE-387) (read “The Arnheiter Affair,” by Neil Sheehan). Both were mothballed reserve ships brought back into service as the fleet count of spit kits was increased for the Vietnam mission. Some old LSTs that served as mother ships for SWIFT boats also.

    With several new ships coming back into commission, the detailers ran out of screened PCOs and so had to dip below the list of those board-selected to go to command and send at least two LCDRs to command at sea who never screened for that job. Pete Bucher. And Marcus Aurelius Arnheiter.

    So those who’d say the system failed with these two guys should be making exactly the opposite point.

  • JJ

    Since the ship is ours and we state it was illegally seized, why not destroy it where it sits? Wouldn’t we be legally entitled to do so?

    • Bill

      Yes, a precision guided munition should have landed on that museum decades ago.

    • TomD

      My understanding is that years ago the NORKS kept her on the other side of the peninsula and then towed her to the present location. We saw her passing through the Tsushima Strait and did nothing. That would have been the time to board or sink her.

  • kye154

    Can’t help but laugh at the silly arrogance of Shumacher line: ” time for the North Koreans to realize the foolishness of their brazen attempt to seize a U.S. Navy”. The North Koreans calculated their actions well, and were brazen enough to do it, and did, and the U.S. Navy couldn’t do anything about it. It is now a matter of history. And we had the illusion that the North Koreans were not all that sophisticated! That is why the USS Pueblo is now home ported in Pyongyang instead of stateside. Probably just as well, since she would have been scrapped on her return voyage home anyway, to avoid having an embarrassing relic around. At least she is being cared for as a museum piece in Pyongyang. The real idiocy is, the USS Pueblo is still a commissioned ship of the U.S. navy. The U.S. doesn’t seem to learn, it lost in that little spat with North Korea, and nothing is going to change that, by keeping a 74 year old ship, that it can’t be used in commission. But, at least the costs of upkeep has been defrayed by the Navy to North Korea.

    • incredulous1

      I don’t buy that we couldn’t do anything about it, but that we wouldn’t do anything about it. I want to know who’s decision it was to abandon those 83 men and let them fall into DPRK hands. That’s your boogieman culprit. I also think this needs to make the target list when we hit Un’s regime.

  • Eyes open

    Sad that we didn’t send help. I saw a panel discussion years after the event with Generals and Admirals and to a man they said we couldn’t send help because of the distance involved. BS! As a carrier sailor whose ship was sent north after the capture, we flew sorties every day to South Viet Nam. So why couldn’t we supply air cover for them? We didn’t want to.

    • incredulous1

      That’s the same BS reply given when Leon Paneta and Co lied their arses off about Benghazi.

  • David Oldham

    Not sure why we have not turned that ship to dust and then announce the delivery of scrap metal to the people of North Korea.

    • USNVO

      I personally think the next time the “Little Rocket Man” acts up would be a good time to remove the Pueblo from the naval register and then perform a SINKEX, maybe with a dozen or so JASSM.

      • TomD

        We sank our own commissioned ships after capture by the Barbary Pirates, correct? I say let the Pueblo go down with her head held high. Don’t strike her from the list.

        • USNVO

          Tempting, and we also sank commissioned ships at Norfolk in the Civil War to avoid capture by the Confederates. But those actions were by USN personnel on the ships themselves, so you can think of it sort of like scuttling. Besides, how much fun would it be to pass the North Koreans a simple declaration that the Pueblo was removed from the Naval Register and the US was no longer seeking its return about a minute before the missiles arrived.

    • Ed Nantes

      Probably because , realistically, you can’t.

  • kye154

    Reading the historical accounts, NSA tasked the Pueblo to intercept signal traffic from Soviet ships in the Tsushima Strait between Japan and Korea, and gather intel on North Korean coastal radars and radio stations.

    According to U.S. reports, the Pueblo was in international waters almost 16 miles from shore. Whereas, the North Korean accounts said, the Pueblo was spying within North Korea’s 12-mile territorial limit. So really, which was it?

    The problem with navigating any ship back in the 1960’s was, you had to rely on line-of-sight, surface radar, Loran,and dead reckoning, (aka – guessing), or by celestial navigation at night. So,the difference between 12 and 16 nautical miles was not much in terms of navigational error then.. 12 miles puts the shores of North Korea almost within sight of the Pueblo’s bridge, but not quite. Radar should have picked up some of the beach. Loran was not reliable in that region of the world, since Japan and South Korea had the only nearby Loran stations at the time, and the Loran could only give you approximations, but not an exact position.. Also, the sea currents circulate in the counterclockwise direction in the Sea of Japan, so it is very possible that the Pueblo could have been pushed further towards the shore, than what the captain of the Pueblo had realized. Nevertheless, the claim of being 16 miles out is a bit suspect, since the Pueblo didn’t need to be that close for the electronic surveillance it was tasked to do, It could have been further out from the coasts by at least double that range, and still collected the data it needed. Instead, the Pueblo was up into the approaches to Yonghung Bay, which would have naturally attracted North Korean’s attention, and compromised its clandestine operation..

    But, the U.S. was pushing the envelope then, which got them in trouble for spying on North Korea and the Russian operations in Vladivostok then. A year later, a navy EC-121 was shot down by the North Koreans for spying too. (You would think the Navy would have learned something from the incident with the Pueblo, but they didn’t).

    The CIA’s Center for Study of Intelligence, put out a declassified report titled: “Lessons from the Capture of the USS Pueblo and the Shoot down of a US Navy EC-121—1968 and 1969”, that is well worth reading. It shows some of the systematic flaws that both NSA and the Navy made, which costed the Navy a ship and a plane.

    • Ed L

      Yeah I remember that. When I operated in the PG all non essential material was removed and we held practice drills routinely on destruction of material. But still I believe the North Koreans push the envelope when It came to international boundaries. They saw chance and they took it and got away with it.

  • Ed L

    Bet you dollars to a donut the North Koreans gutted her and either moved her overland or stuck her inside a RoRo ship to get the pubelo from Wonsan and moved to Pyongyang

    • TomD

      No, she was towed. She was spotted passing through the Tsushima Strait.

      • Ed L

        Well that sucks. We could have taken her back. Clinton administration. I found this article online. “The move of the ship from Wonsan to Pyongyang was handled by Secretary of Defense William J. Perry who had been appointed by President Clinton his North Korea Policy Coordinator. In that role he was in favor of negotiation and appeasement. He was instrumental in arranging Secretary Albright’s traitors visit to NK. He allowed the ship relocation from East to West and told the US Navy – hands off. “The traitor

        • Centaurus

          We could have just come to her rescue in the first place !

  • John B. Morgen

    At the time the USS Pueblo should had escorts be assigned to her for protection, and that was never done….