Elderly man in naval uniform
DPRK,  War

The USS Pueblo at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum

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.

Battle ship moored by a stone jetty
The USS Pueblo

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!

Lady in military uniform by display boards
Our 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?

School children in uniform with red ties
Visiting school class

8 Comments

  • mtncorg

    Interesting to contrast the Pueblo museum with the small museum up in the mountains of central Vietnam at Khe Sahn or even the much larger museum in Saigon. Hearing the story from the other side – “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” to quote a well-known British writer from India also remembered for his police work in Burma.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Very apt quote 🙂 We went to the museum in Saigon last year and I would say it was somewhat less one-sided than this one without being really balanced. I found the displays about the US soldiers who campaigned against the war particularly interesting, and the stuff on the peace movement in general (in part at least because I remember it!) The North Koreans don’t really do ‘balanced’ when it comes to public accounts of their past, but it’s important to hear their side of the story at times, especially when the West’s account risks also lacking balance!

  • margaret21

    I’d love to be able to compare notes one day. I haven’t visited North Korea, as you have: and you, I think, haven’t visited South Korea. Superficially, South Korea is very westernised, and very much in thrall to the technologies in which it excels. And yet outside the big cities, many traditions endure, and it would be interesting to compare the lives of two country or small-town dwellers in the two different regimes.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      You’re right to think that I haven’t (as yet) been to South Korea. The friend who first inspired me to visit the North when I read about his visit was due to go there last year but for obvious reasons had to cancel – a shame as he would have been able to make direct comparisons. I think some of the traditions are very similar (traditional dress for instance) as the two are relatively recently divided. But the quality of life would be very different. People in rural North Korea have a very tough life, with little in the way of machinery to help them farm, for instance. And farms there are run on state collective lines, so it’s more like working in a factory. Plus of course people have very restricted lives – no access to the internet, foreign TV, films etc. No real awareness of the world outside their own country. And on the surface at least (and for many I suspect beneath the surface too) an unswerving devotion to their Dear Leaders.

      • margaret21

        Yes, I’ve read a couple of accounts written by women who have successfully fled, and keeping your private thoughts exactly that – private, seems uppermost. This may be the last generation when South Koreans maintain strong contact with their traditions in farming and food-preparation. The main aim of most parents seems to be to make sure their children are educated to a degree that enables them to move away from the drudgery involved in jobs in those sectors. Children studying till late in after school homework clubs was something we noticed as we walked round cities at night.

Do let me know what you think - I'd love to hear from you

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