The Ill-fated Mission of the USS Pueblo
Jack Cheevers, Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo, (New York: Penguin, 2013)
In Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo, former Los Angeles Times political reporter Jack Cheevers recounts North Korea’s 1968 seizure of the USS Pueblo, a U.S. intelligence-gathering ship; the ordeal the crew suffered while in detention; and the behind-the-scenes efforts to end the crisis. Despite protests that Pueblo was free to roam international waters, North Korea denied its crew the right to use international maritime laws in its defense, which led to a diplomatic crisis and a nearly year-long nightmare for the ship’s crew members.
In January 1968, the small, worn-out American spy ship set out to pinpoint military radar stations along Wonsan, on the east coast of North Korea. The ship’s true mission was shrouded in mystery even among some of the sailors — to spy on the hermit kingdom and evaluate its ability wage a second Korean war. Though disguised as an oceanographic research ship, the Pueblo was packed with advanced electronic-surveillance equipment and classified documents. Its captain was former submarine officer Lloyd “Pete” Bucher, a 40-year-old work hard, party hard man. Though Bucher never commanded a submarine or a ship prior to this highly classified intelligence mission, he was not new to the world of intelligence. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Bucher served on three submarines that eavesdropped on communist naval operations.
On a frigid January morning, while spying off the coast of Wonsan, the Pueblo was challenged by a North Korean gunboat. Commander Bucher tried to escape, contending that the ship was still in international waters, but the aging and poorly equipped naval intelligence ship could not outrun the North Korean forces. The ship was quickly surrounded by more North Korean boats, shelled and machine-gunned, and forced to surrender. One sailor died and ten were seriously wounded during the barrage. The North Koreans quickly boarded the ship and ordered Bucher to follow their ship into the port of Wonsan. After it reached Wonsan, the Pueblo crew was blindfolded and bound; they were rushed off their damaged spy ship and into a captivity that would last for 11 months.
The Navy blamed Commander Bucher for the capture. However, Cheevers argues that the Navy was really at fault. In fact, there were many problems with the Pueblo even before the mission set sail. First, the Pueblo was not fit for a mission of this gravity due to its lack of modernity and speed. When the Pueblo was stopped in “international waters,” it was quickly surrounded by a North Korean submarine chaser, speedy torpedo boats, and two MiG jets. Pueblo‘s equipment and performance of its navigation was delinquent, and according to Bucher, it had a top speed of just 13 knots and thus had no chance of escape. Second, the Pueblo lacked proper equipment to defend herself or to carry out her mission. It only carried two 50-cal machine guns. Third, there was insufficient equipment aboard to destroy all the intelligence-gathering equipment and secret documents in a timely manner if the ship ran into trouble. Fourth, the intelligence community failed to notify the Pueblo of North Korea’s Blue House Raid, led by Special Forces Lieutenant Kim Shin-Jo less than 48 hours before the Pueblo’s capture. North Korean Special Forces had nearly succeeded in assassinating South Korea’s president, Park Chung-Hee, the father of current South Korean President Park Guen-Hye. The knowledge of the raid would have been enough for the Pueblo to withdraw from her mission and regroup back to Sasebo, Japan, as the explosive incident had the power to push Cold War tensions toward a flashpoint. Fifth, prior to taking command, Bucher’s briefers at the National Security Agency and the Navy Security Group told him not to worry about the ship being attacked. Despite North Korea’s noticeable aggression towards the United States and a possible contempt for international law and custom, the U.S. intelligence community ensured Bucher that his best protection was the international law and custom that guaranteed free passage on international waters.
Cheevers details the harrowing, terror-filled 11 months Commander Bucher and his crew spent living in captivity following their detainment by North Korean forces. He offers readers an emotional journey into the minds and daily lives of these men and how their North Korean captors deprived them of their basic human rights as prisoners of war. Cheevers also sheds light on how North Korea’s continual threats and harassment, filled with physical and mental abuse, resulted in the men’s malnourishment and sleep deprivation. Most suffered health problems and injuries that were aggravated by gulag-like living conditions; North Korean guards threatened to kill Bucher and taunted, brutalized, and humiliated the crew. Cheevers noted that leaders of the communist state were adamant that the North Koreans would never release Bucher and the crew unless the U.S. government publicly apologized for surveillance activity. Crew members were forced to write propaganda-filled letters home and to various government officials.
Cheevers paints a more powerful and complete picture of the seizure and aftermath of the incident than can be found in Bucher’s memoirs and those of his executive officer, Edward R. Murphy. He does this by incorporating the perspectives of multiple survivors from the Pueblo and policymakers who were involved. Though sometimes sympathetic to Bucher’s stance (having interviewed Bucher just before his death in 2004), Cheevers’ thorough research, multiple interviews, and access to now declassified government documents enable readers to experience the failure firsthand.
Unlike most literature on the subject, such as The Pueblo Surrender or The Last Voyage of USS Pueblo, which are aimed at the painful account of the capture and abuse of the Pueblo crew by North Koreans, in the final few chapters, Cheevers focuses substantial attention on how policymakers tried to fathom the meaning of the capture and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s secret negotiations with North Korea. For example, Cheevers examines the perplexity of the situation facing government officials, who “faced a minefield of dangerous unknowns.” U.S. policymakers could not comprehend why North Korea had captured the spy ship in the first place. According to Cheevers, CIA Director Richard Helms believed the Soviets were the masterminds behind the seizure, conspiring with North Korea to divert Washington’s attention away from Vietnam and to “open a second front on the Korean peninsula to tie up U.S. forces that otherwise could be deployed to Vietnam.” The assassination attempt on President Park and the seizure of the Pueblo had the North and South Koreans poised for war with each other. A second Korean War meant drawing the 50,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea into the conflict and LBJ did not think it was “worth a resumption of the Korean War.” Therefore, the Johnson administration worked hard to negotiate the crisis behind the scenes. Cheevers reveals the risks of diplomacy in fighting the Cold War and the immense difficulties of pursuing engagement with the recalcitrant Kim Il-Sung. In short, Johnson had to simultaneously prevent another war from erupting on the Korean peninsula while desperately trying to negotiate to save the captured crew from possible execution by Kim. Cheevers credits LBJ with “patient diplomacy” and “diplomatic legerdemain” with both Koreas, which brought the eventual resolution. Unwilling to start another war on the peninsula, LBJ ordered U.S. ships and aircraft off the North Korean coast. While he seemed resilient in public, in secret he negotiated with the North Koreans and merely gave a diplomatic reply to this “act of war.” LBJ was also concerned about “reactions in the court of public opinion.” U.S. officials eventually signed a “pre-repudiated” unconditional apology and eventually the U.S. and North Korea were able to reach a solution. On Christmas Eve 1968, the crew was reunited in San Diego with their families. Unfortunately, the USS Pueblo still remains in North Korea, where it is considered to be a source of pride, and a claimed victory against the evil imperialists.
Cheever’s explanation of “false assumptions, negligent planning, and excessive risk taking” can be a useful reminder in today’s world of reconnaissance and diplomatic brinksmanship. In the case of contemporary North Korea, no one knows when or how the DPRK might collapse, or if it will ever relinquish its nuclear arsenal and commit to economic reform. We can only assume the most likely situation or outcome based on reports from defectors, first-hand intelligence, historical evidence, and scholarly works. This is the most vexing aspect of the North Korea problem, as there are still many unknowns. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union positioned spying ships in international waters off each other’s coasts. Both agreed to sensible policies such as “Incidents at Sea Agreement” in 1972: A nation who attacked an enemy spy ship could expect retaliation on one of its own ships. There was and is no such agreement shared with North Korea, however, because the United States simply ignored the fact that North Korea had no spy ships.
As both an Army foreign area officer and a student of East Asia affairs, I appreciate the value of Cheevers’ book. It offers priceless insight into a historical incident that could very well be repeated today given the lack of firsthand knowledge the defense industry has on one of its most viable threats today. Act of War is a reminder to contemporary policymakers and ordinary Americans alike that North Korea’s commitment to fight off the so-called evil imperialists — the United States — is endless. Considering Kim Jong-Un’s growing arsenal of advanced weapons and his disdain for the United States, and considering our literal blindness when it comes to the Kim regime, one could easily see Kim seizing one of our ships or aircraft (remember the P-3 incident in China in 2001) and repeating the actions of his grandfather. We are almost as vulnerable to North Korean attack now as we were when the Pueblo was captured.
I can do no better than to give the last word to Cheevers. He writes: “as we unleash spies and covert operations against a growing list of twenty-first-century adversaries, we’d do well to remember the painful lessons of the Pueblo.”
Christopher Lee is an active duty Major in the U.S. Army. A graduate of West Point, he has served for eight years as an intelligence officer. He is currently a Foreign Area Officer for the Northeast Asia region and a graduate student at Columbia University.
Photo credit: Laika ac