An elderly man in naval uniform sits on a bench in the museum grounds. He is eighty years old and is employed by the museum as a guide, although his main duty is simply posing with tourists. To the visiting North Koreans this man is a national hero; while to the relatively few tourists from further afield he is simply an historical curiosity.
On 23 January 1968 he led six others, the crew of a small boat, as they boarded and captured the USS Pueblo. Today the Pueblo is moored on the Potong Canal, in the grounds of the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang. It was captured by the North Koreans because, they said, its crew was spying in their waters.
In the battle to capture it, one US officer was killed and the remaining 82 crew members taken prisoner. The North Koreans demanded a full admission of guilt and apology from the US in order to secure their release. The US, under President Lyndon Johnson, refused to comply. They denied the accusation of spying, claiming that the Pueblo was a scientific research vessel. This would seem to be untrue; the Pueblo’s orders were to intercept and conduct surveillance of Soviet Navy activity and to gather signal and electronic intelligence from North Korea.
The claim by North Korea that the ship was in their waters is much more open to dispute. Both countries produced maps showing the location of the ship on a succession of dates, and the positions differ considerably.
The US immediately demanded the return of the crew and ship; and they reinforced their demands with the mobilisation of the US Seventh Fleet just off North Korea’s shore. In response Kim Il Sung announced that North Korea was ready to fight and the army had been mobilised.
The US backed off and in December admitted the violation of North Korea’s territorial waters. They published a written apology in exchange for the return of the 82 prisoners and the remains of the dead officer; the crew members also wrote ‘confessions’ of guilt. The crew were accordingly released but the ship was not. Today it is shown off here as a war trophy, although to this day it officially remains a commissioned vessel of the United States Navy.
The admission of guilt by the US was of course seen as a massive coup by the North Korean government. They continue today to maintain that the Pueblo was in their waters when captured. Meanwhile the US stance remains that it was not, and that the ‘admission’ was written only to secure the crew’s release and safe return. You can imagine which version of events was relayed to us by our tour guide!
Touring the Pueblo
On board ship we were shown a video about the capture and subsequent events, including the confessions of those on board and, eventually, the apology from the US government which secured their release.
Then we had a tour of some of the main areas, including the communications and cipher rooms. Certainly the evidence presented was a convincing argument in favour of the ship being on an espionage rather than research mission. We saw equipment evidently used in spying. A document on the ship’s mission set out their objective as:
‘To establish the type and deployments of coastal surveillance radars and coastal defence weapons on the North Korean coast, which pose a threat to the landing task forces on the shores; or patrol of surface vessels in close proximity to the shores, should hostilities occur again.’
We also saw bullet holes left in an internal door during the seizure of the ship. Copies of the crew members’ confessions are carefully displayed in a glass cabinet. But it was the video film, very grainy as it was, that created the most dramatic impressions of the North Korean position on this incident.
So who is right?
As I have written elsewhere, history as presented in North Korea is a carefully curated account of past events in which the perspective of others is less important than the preservation of power by the Kim dynasty and the absolute belief in the superiority of this nation over any other. But when it comes to the Pueblo, they do have a valid point to make about spying.
It is events like this, in part, that make them so suspicious of the rest of the world. And it is in visiting such sights, with an open but not uncritical mind, that you come to understand a little bit about the North Korean psyche. And isn’t that, in part at least, why we travel – to understand other people, other perspectives, other histories?