Attack on the USS Pueblo AGER-2. Painting courtesy of USS Pueblo Crewmember Associations.

Korea: The Endless War-The USS Pueblo Incident

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) leader Kim Jong Un announced today, that a “quasi-state of war” existed with the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and that its military should prepare for battle.
BLUF: Since the 1953 armistice that brought peace and a sense of security to the Korean Peninsula both North and South Korea have poked and prodded at the others territory and the soldiers that man the guard towers and fence lines. What makes the current stand-off different is the possible reaction by the young, untested and often irrational leader of North Korea.
This article looks at the past to help understand the present.

The Korean War has gone by several different monikers: the Forgotten War, Coldest War, Police Action, but more fitting, it is the Endless War.

The Korean War started in 1950 with the invasion by North Korean troops across the 38th parallel and “ended” with a truce signed by U.S. Army Lt. Gen. William K. Harrison, Jr., senior delegate, United Nations Command Delegation and North Korean Gen. Nam Il, senior delegate, Delegation of the Korean People’s Army and the Chinese People’s Volunteers.

The Korean War impacted U.S. policies in the Pacific during the Cold War and has continued with the Obama’s administration “Pacific Pivot” and the recent announcement of The Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy: Achieving U.S. National Security Objectives in a Changing Environment.

CIA Map of Korean DMZ.

The Korean Demilitarize Zone (DMZ) is a 148 mile “no man’s land” created to act as a safe zone along the Military Demarcation Line that separates the two states that technically remain at war. Since 1953, events on the DMZ have been the source of several crises that led to one side ramping up its defensive conditions, strained face to face meetings in the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom, and eventually one side blinked and the crisis deescalated. The latest standoff resembles many of the past events, in 1968 who would have thought the small navy of a struggling country would attack the strongest maritime power, the U.S. Navy.

USS Pueblo AGER-2 US Navy photograph

The Soviet Union throughout the Cold War operated intelligence collection ships disguised as fishing trawlers. The ships known as AGIs usually operated near the homeports or ports frequented by U.S. Navy ships. Additionally, the Soviet Navy shadowed U.S. fleets at sea, especially those operating off Vietnam. The U.S. commissioned two ships to provide similar missions; the USS Liberty, and the USS Pueblo.

The USS Pueblo is a World War II era trawler used both by the Navy and the Army, before being converted into a lightly armed spy ship. She conducted one mission in the waters off Wonsan, North Korea in January 1968. The USS Pueblo AGER-2 was fired upon and captured during a combined attack by North Korean gun boats and fighter aircraft.

The North Korean sailors boarded the ship and the Pueblo was towed into the port of Wonsan and remained there for a number of years. In January 1968, American newspapers ran pictures of the crew being led with their arms in the air by armed North Korean soldiers. The capture of a United States man-o-war, however lightly armed, remains as a reminder of the explosive nature of the international tension on the Korean peninsula.

The USS Pueblo attack centers on whether the ship was operating in international waters or the territorial waters of North Korea while conducting “oceanographic research” or intelligence collection. The definition of the terms territorial and international waters is still a contested international issue.

Crewmembers indicate the photo was taken under coercion by flipping a “Hawaiian Good Luck” sign — the middle finger.

The story of the Pueblo includes her skipper Commander Lloyd “Pete” Butcher and the crew; a mix of Navy Sailors that took the ship to sea and the select Naval Security Group Sailors and Marines that manned the special National Security Agency collection equipment. The intelligence activities were conducted in a restricted part of the ship that was off limits to most of the crew. Their story has been documented in a number of books, movies (made by both USA and North Korean filmmakers), the crews’ website, Naval Board of Inquiry, and Congressional hearings into what became known as the “Pueblo Affair.” While the crew and the body of Seaman Duane Hodges, the lone casualty were repatriated across the same bridge where other prisoners of war were exchanged, the ship was held and remains in North Korea.

While the Pueblo’s crew and others have requested the U.S. government make the ship’s return a priority in trade and security negotiations with Pyongyang, the ship has remained a “war prize.” With the acknowledgment of then Secretary of State William J. Perry during the Clinton administration, the Pueblo was towed over a 1,000 miles in international waters, she was moved from Wonsan on the east coast to the west coast and the Taedong River to Pyongyang. Originally the Pueblo was docked on the river and was moved circa 2013 to its current mooring at the National Revolution Museum in Pyongyang.

Imagery courtesy Google Earth and DigitalGlobe. Annotations by the author

As the war drums sound on the Korean Peninsula it is imperative that the world to look at the past events that have threatened to break the truce and try harder to find a peaceful solution to the peninsula.

Oh and just like the sayings from previous wars.



Dave Mattingly a writer and national security consultant. He retired from the U.S. Navy as a Master Chief with over thirty years of service. He is a member of theMilitary Writers Guild.

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Or to learn more:

Pueblo Crewmembers Association

George Washington University National l Security Archives

National Cryptologic Museum, Fort Meade, Maryland

CIA Lessons from the Capture of the USS Pueblo and the Shootdown of a US Navy EC-121–1968 and 1969 by Richard A. Mobley

NSA Cryptologic Involvement in the USS Pueblo Incident (Declassified)

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